The long trek of one man has raised awareness of the plight of thousands of asylum seekers in limbo due to government policy, writes Sumitra Vignaendra.
ON 10 SEPTEMBER 2023, at the end of refugee Neil Para's marathon 1,014-kilometre walk from Ballarat to Sydney, it was made public that Neil, his wife, Sugaa, and two daughters, Nivash and Kartie, had been granted permanent visas. (His youngest, Nive, was born in Australia and she was made a citizen when she turned ten.)
But this fact is taken from the middle of this story.
The traumatic start
Neil fled war-torn Sri Lanka for Malaysia in 2008. At the time, Sugaa was pregnant but he felt he had to temporarily leave her to find a safer and more stable home for his family. By 2012, the family was reunited, now with two girls, Nivash and Kartie, with Sugaa pregnant with a third child. The young family made the perilous journey from Malaysia to Indonesia, then to Christmas Island on board a small fishing boat carrying in excess of 200 asylum seekers.
On arrival, the family was detained for a period and then finally released into the Australian community with working rights. The family went to Ballarat in 2013 on a Bridging Visa, where they were welcomed by the community - most notably, Kath Morton. After four months, however, their working rights were inexplicably revoked, which meant they had no visa, no rights to work, no Medicare and no tertiary study rights. By then, their youngest, Nive, was born.
The people of Ballarat generously pay the family's bills and rent. In return, Neil is a tireless volunteer for the SES and leads a crew, while Sugaa volunteers in aged care and the Ballarat Visitor Information Centre. Both are also actively involved in community committees.
Living and raising children when one's status in Australia remained uncertain, however, was understandably excruciating. They applied many times for permanent protection, without success. Their many appeals against the rejection and for ministerial intervention were also unsuccessful.
Walking for freedom
Neil felt that the only way to be heard by the authorities would be to make the long trek through two states on foot to the Prime Minister's electoral office in Sydney, petition in hand. On the way, it was not just his story that he would share with the people he encountered, but also the stories of over 10,000 refugees who were in similar straights, 2,000 of which are families.
This was an incredibly brave act on the part of a refugee who had so much to lose by bringing his situation to the attention of the public in this way, not to mention the physical and mental toll of making such a trip. Sugaa also confirmed that it was the first time during their stay in Australia that he had been away from the family for such a long period of time. Preparing and training for his trek also forced him away from his wife and children for hours every day for months.
Neil took this risk because he wanted to put a spotlight on the fact that over 10,000 refugees were living in uncertainty, many for over ten years, on visas with inconsistent and onerous conditions, or on no visas at all. Many refugees on these visas still do not have work rights, study rights, Medicare or basic income support. Many are also dependent on the goodwill and charity of the community for a home and employment.
Touching hearts and minds
Neil was convinced that the public would be interested in these refugees' stories and respond with sympathy and support.
He was correct. At every town through which he travelled, people welcomed him, communities and some politicians supported him and councils arranged receptions. Supporters travelled from as far as Tasmania to walk with him, as well as fellow refugees from Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Afghanistan, who travelled from Melbourne and other towns in order to be walking partners and to share their stories, including a large group who gathered at Shepparton's Mosque in Victoria.
Neil's walk also garnered the support of Melbourne's Refugee Action Collective which helped coordinate the walk, supported by Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) groups in both Victoria and New South Wales, and refugee support groups such as People Just Like Us. Long-time supporters, Ballarat RAR, led by convenor Margaret O'Donnell, were pivotal.
Behind the scenes, hundreds of volunteers ensured Neil was accompanied by a support vehicle daily and RAR members and other community members fed, housed and supported Neil, provided companionship and blister relief. Keiran Magee, a volunteer with Refugee Action Collective Victoria, meticulously detailed the daily route and logistics while a number of refugee advocates in New South Wales and Victoria coordinated media coverage. Supporters had weekly Zoom meetings to ensure everything ran smoothly.
Individuals and groups donated funds for this journey - including the Iranian Women's Association in Melbourne - and over 20,000 Australians signed Neil's petition, almost 20,000 electronically and others were handwritten, asking for permanent protection for refugees. The electronic petition was delivered to the Prime Minister's electoral office on 12 September.
Power told Neil:
The journey ends in Sydney
When Neil arrived in the Greater Sydney Area, a dinner was organised jointly by the Australian Tamil Refugee Council, Consortium of Tamil Associations NSW/ACT, T.R.A.C.K. (Tamil Rehabilitation and Community Konnection), THADAM (an NGO based in Sydney which focuses on mental health in the Tamil community), the Australian Tamil Congress Uniting Church Tamil Congregation, and the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce of National Christian Council.
The Jesuit Refugee Service and the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum also welcomed and supported Neil in the Sydney section of his journey. Sutherland Shire Refugee Connection covered his accommodation and meals, and their members joined the final leg of the walk, as did the Sydney-based clients and volunteers from the Asylum Seekers Centre, who hosted a dinner for Neil on his second night in Sydney.
On 9 September, after Neil's walk from Liverpool to Canterbury, he was reunited after 40 days with his Sugaa and their girls.
Fabia Claridge, co-convenor of People Just Like Us, a refugee advocacy organisation based in Sydney, said:
On 10 September, dozens of supporters walked with him and his family on his final six-kilometre stretch from Canterbury to Marrickville. "Sun in my eyes, wind in my face, joy in my heart as I cross the finish line," Neil reflected. At the picnic that concluded this event, it was made public that four members of the family had been given permanent protection (Nive was granted citizenship when she turned ten).
The story is not over
In February, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles granted access to 19,000 who held Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven. However, in excess of 10,000 refugees in Australia remain in limbo. Another nearly 14,000 refugees in Indonesia and elsewhere have been waiting, as promised, for the Australian Government to process them. Many of these refugees, after having escaped gross persecution, have been waiting for over ten years for a response and adequate aid from the Australian Government.
Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition has said that Labor recognises the flaws in the fast-track system introduced under former PM Scott Morrison, but has done nothing to rectify those flaws; despite policy, the fast-track system has not been abolished. Nor has Labor provided any systematic way to review the flawed decisions.
With great perversity, Australia punishes the people who are most in need - those who have escaped violence and horror in their birth countries, leaving families behind, both dead and alive. Australia's mistreatment of refugees is not only at odds with human rights conventions that Australia has ratified, it is also at odds with the second verse of our own national anthem: 'For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share.'
To manage this glaring disjuncture between what we say about ourselves and what we do, we fabricate false narratives about refugees, demonising them as people asking for more than they deserve, which is in stark contrast to the truth. A common feature of refugees is their willingness to freely offer their time, services and kindness to help others in straightened circumstances. When one experiences perils, one appreciates the value of community.
Throughout his journey, Neil has highlighted the massive contribution of refugees to the Australian community, including their willingness to freely offer their time, services and kindness to help others. He has also shown his respect for the First Peoples of this land, their rights and the value of their cultures.
The day after his arduous walk, when he had earned a much-needed rest, he still made time to write the following to his Tamil compatriots in Australia:
Sumitra Vignaendra is a research scientist and is undertaking a PhD in philosophy of science on the topic of Big Data.