The Largest Independent Human Rights Organisation In Australia Could Be Closing

“What I keep saying is that unless you are First Nations, everyone must recognise that all of our ancestors are refugees or immigrants. Let's take care of each other rather than turn our backs on each other.”

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For 22 years, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) has been a lifeline for people seeking asylum in Australia.

In any given year, more than 7,000 people seeking asylum, and in need of essential services including food, housing, medical care, and legal help, have been able to go to the ASRC.

Its main office is based in Footscray, in Melbourne’s Inner West; the same space that was originally offered rent-free to its CEO and founder Kon Karapanagiotidis when he started the organisation at the age of just 28.

Kon was the first to go to high school in his working class migrant family, and opened the ASRC when our then PM John Howard was busy using xenophobic campaigns against refugees and asylum seekers to retain power.

“The ASRC exists because I saw an injustice and said, I’m not going to sit by and be a bystander. I’m going to do something about it. And then others followed me and we created this incredible movement together with refugees,” Kon tells Junkee.

Remarkably, it has grown to be Victoria’s biggest refugee charities, and the largest independent human rights organisation in the country. Thanks to the relentless hard work from staff and volunteers, the ASRC has remained totally independent, receiving no funding from the federal government.

In truly devastating news, though, it is now at risk of closing down in a matter of weeks.

“During the pandemic, the ASRC kept its doors open. Most charities physically shut. We literally doubled in size and we tripled the scale of most of our services from housing to food and medicine,” Kon says.

Since opening up again, public donations have been down 45 percent (July 2022), forcing the ASRC to launch an emergency appeal for funding to stay open.
“The challenge was last year – slowly trying to resize back to something sustainable… it was really hard,” he explains.

“The demand hadn’t changed. We cover 80,000 nights of accommodation, 6,000 medical appointments a year, we pay for the medicine of people with no income and 600 people a fortnight coming through our foodbank.

So it was really hard to go, what do you cut? Another lawyer, another nurse, another social worker?”

The only way to help the community was to grow to meet the critical needs of people knocking at ASRC’s door. But Kon explains that this came with the perfect storm.

“You had a change of government which created in some the mindset – understandably given what the Labor government said it was going to do – that the fight was over. And then you had… inflation rate rises and cost of living,” he said.

ASRC staff and volunteers started seeing things they’d never experienced before, like only 30 cars turning up for their annual Christmas food drive that usually attracts 400 plus cars with boots full to the brim with food donations.

“People just couldn’t give in the way that they used to. So we found ourselves with a 45 percent drop in fundraising.”

The organisation has a strict reserves policy that’s designed to help protect them against financial shocks, so that they can safely commit to long-term planning and service delivery.

The policy says they need to have enough savings to cover at least four months and no more than six months of general operating costs. The specific amount they need is determined by the board each year through a risk assessment.

The ASRC are giving themselves until the end of March 2023 to fill the gap of their savings, otherwise they may have to shut their doors. And the decision will be based on whether the organisation can properly honour employees for the rest of the financial year.

“What I can say is the public have just been extraordinary,” Kon says.

“We’re making great progress. We’re trying to figure out how much of what people are giving now is what people would’ve given in June. So in June is usually when we get a third of all of our donations from the year.”

While the ASRC does take a small amount of money from the state government, because of its bipartisan stance, Kon refuses federal funding.

“We’re accountable to refugees, we’re not accountable to the Labor government. Our job is to represent refugees,” he adds. “Change happens because it’s demanded by refugees, and then allies stand with them.”

Arguably, the Albanese government has made positive changes to refugee policy in Australia.

Just this month, thousands of refugees stuck on temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas were told they could apply for permanent visas. The change affects around 19,000 people, and honours one of the Labor government’s key election promises.

“We’re accountable to refugees, we’re not accountable to the Labor government. Our job is to represent refugees.”

However, advocates are calling for the government to make sure that processing times aren’t kept to a minimum. Even those who have their permanent visas approved are expected to have to endure a 12-month transition period – which, for refugees who have already been in limbo for years, isn’t really reasonable.

And while this is a positive development when it comes to shoring up the rights of refugees, it’s at odds with Labor’s announcement to re-detain other refugees.

“We just saw another $420 million given to Nauru. The Aggregate Sentencing Act passed last week that resulted in 160 people being re-detained. And there are 12,000 people that remain in limbo a decade later,” Kon explains.

“That’s why when people have gone, surely now you’ll take federal government funding to save you. No, we won’t. Because what is the point of surviving if you’re not changing the country? We’d rather not be here if that’s the cost.”

“Because what is the point of surviving if you’re not changing the country? We’d rather not be here if that’s the cost.”

What I keep saying is that unless you are First Nations, is to recognise that all of our ancestors are refugees or immigrants. And that we are here through simply bringing the lottery of time and place.

This should never be a political debate. This is about who are we and do we care about each other? If we value each other that means we take care of each other.”

You can help keep the ASRC’s doors open. Donate to the ASRC here

Image credits: Supplied by the ASRC