Changing the conversation around Refugees and Asylum Seekers

Last week, Kon Karapanagiotidas presented the 2016 Human Rights lecture at James Cook University on the topic “How to champion human rights from a values based model of action and engagement”. In his address, Kon assured us that all the facts in the world are not going to sway someone who is fearful of asylum seekers. He suggested that we need to go back to values and to engage those of differing opinions in conversations that ask “what are the values of the Australia that we want to live in”.

The Human Rights lecture has been held at JCU for the past three years. Previous lecturers were Refugee Advocate Julian Burnside, National Director of Amnesty International Australia, Claire Mallinson and Refugee Surgeon Dr Munjed Al-Muderis. This year’s lecture was timed to coincide with the celebration of Refugee Week at JCU by the group JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.


Promotion of the lecture was done largely through social media and it was great to see that the majority of the audience of 200 were under the age of 30. The evening opened with an acknowledgement of traditional owners by JCU lecturer Max Lenoy. Following this were short introductions by the groups who had organised the lecture – JCU Health Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, the Townsville Multicultural Support Group (TMSG) and the Amnesty International Townsville and JCU groups.

Kon began his address by addressing the young people in the audience. He urged them to be fearless in defence of human rights and not to listen to people who might discourage them from following their passion. He drew from his experience of working with a number of marginalised groups before starting the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) when he was 28 years old. Kon and a group of his students from TAFE commenced their operation from a shopfront giving out donated items to asylum seekers living in the local community. In the intervening 15 years the ASRC has grown into an operation with an annual budget of ten million dollars that has assisted more than 12,000 asylum Seekers in Victoria, and now has more than 3,000 volunteers involved in its work.

Past experience has taught Kon that it is important to lead with compassion and empathy and that given the right circumstances, most people come to understand that the material world is meaningless and that one thing that gives our lives meaning is community.

Kon shared research carried out last year into how we might change the current fear of refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian community. The research revealed that approaches by refugee advocacy groups that concentrated on facts were ineffective and in some cases counterproductive. He summed up these approaches as myth busting – based on the premise that if the general population only knew the real facts then they would support a more compassionate approach to asylum seekers.

The reality is that, in Kon’s words, “Fear trumps Facts” every time. He gave some examples of how this happens – when people who are fearful are told that it is not illegal to seek asylum, the message they get is “oh so they are breaking the law”. When they are told that asylum seekers are not queue jumpers their response is “ah so there is a queue”. Worst of all – when they hear about the terrible conditions in the countries that people have fled, and the suffering that refugees experience in our off-shore detention centres they think “ we don’t want the assort of thing happening here so we better keep these people out”.

So what should we be saying and doing? Kon told us that it is important that we are clear about who we are trying to reach. The research showed that the Australian population could be broken up roughly into three groups – 20% who know our current policies are wrong and need to be changed, 24% who agree with Andrew Bolt and Pauline Hansen and other extremists and are not going to change their viewpoint whatever they hear, and 56% in the middle who are uncomfortable about our current policies but can see no other way of dealing with the issue.

Our task, said Kon, is to be talking to the 56% and convincing them that there is another way. The way to do this is by “values based” conversations. He asked the audience to imagine they were having a conversation with a close relative or friend who was in the 56%. Would the person be swayed by the fact that Australia has spent $9.6 billion on off-shore detention centres since 2012 to detain 2000 people. This amount is much greater the annual budget of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees who is entrusted with the welfare of 65 million people.

This might be compelling evidence of the scandal of our current policies to us in the 20%, but to our friend or relative, these are likely to be seen as meaningless big numbers.

Kon encouraged us to have a different conversation. He suggested that we ask them about their own experience of adversity. Perhaps members of their family came to Australia as refugees or migrants – talk about the struggles they had and the ways they had overcome the challenges of settling into a new homeland. Talk about the contributions that such people made to Australia and the resilience and diversity they brought with them. Ask about the sort of society they wish to live in – do they want a caring compassionate society or one that condones child abuse in off-shore detention centres and that cruelly allows the destruction of people’s lives through hopelessness and boredom.

In our conversations, we need to be talking about saving more lives and helping people with safe passage to safety, not defending our borders and destroying the business model of people smugglers. As an aside, Kon reminded us that the courageous people who assisted thousands of Jewish people to flee Nazi Germany before and during World War 2 were not seen as people smugglers – after the War they were recognised as heroes and many were given official recognition of their bravery.

Kon concluded by encouraging us not to lose hope and to always believe in the preciousness of life. His address received thunderous applause and was followed by more than half an hour of questions. During the questions he told the audience that he would like to return to Townsville early next year to hold training sessions for people who would be empowered to go into the community and engage in the “values based” conversations that he had described.


Photo: Kon with Dinithi and Nimath from JCU Professionals for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Several days after the lecture, the Townsville Bulletin(16 September) reported that the Queensland Government had admitted it should not have taken so long to introduce mandatory child abuse reporting laws following a campaign by Townsville grandparents. In June last year the Federal Government passed the infamous Border Force Act which “makes it an offence for an “entrusted person” (an Australian Border Force employee) to make a record of or disclose “protected information”. This is widely defined to include any information obtained by the person in their capacity as an employee. The penalty for the offence is two years’ imprisonment.”

It is important to have mandatory child abuse reporting on the mainland but the opposite situation occurs in the off-shore detention centres – under the Border Force legislation a health worker could go to gaol for reporting child abuse. I thought back to the message from Kon’s lecture. Here was a great opportunity to be engaging with those around and asking “is this situation compatible with the values we want for the society we live in?”

Kon’s address can be viewed at


About peterhanley1

Peter Hanley has lived in North Queensland for more than 30 years. His interests include human rights, social justice, sustainability and community development. True North explores issues in these areas.
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2 Responses to Changing the conversation around Refugees and Asylum Seekers

  1. This is such useful advice. in my other life as a market trader I often get trapped in the negative conversation about refugees and asylum seekers. Now I have some other strategies to ‘change the conversation’. Thank you Peter and Kon, especially Peter, for your insightful and inspiring blog posts.

  2. Pingback: Townsville Refugee Advocates meet with Federal MP Cathy O’Toole | True North Blog

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