Immigration lawyers acting for asylum seekers are ‘unAustralian’
20th Dec 2018
I am the daughter of the son of the son of the son of a man who travelled to Australia from England by boat, some time in the mid-1800s. He settled in the very guts of NSW: on Gobbagombalin Station, on the northern side of Wagga Wagga.
In six generations those carrying my family name have migrated a total of 8 kms: from Gobbagombalin, to Gumly Gumly, to Wagga Wagga, where my mother and brother still live, and my father lived until he died six years ago.
From England to Australia to a standstill.
They were farmhands and boundary riders, and later plasterers (like my father), builders and farmers.
When someone applies the modifier ‘Aussie’, or says something is ‘Australian’, my family and people like us are historically what they mean. Fair-skinned and working class, from generations of fair-skinned, working class people. Australian in the elemental sense of the word.
I am the eldest of four children. My mother fell pregnant at 16, had me when she was 17, and told my unsuspecting, somewhat gormless dad on his 21st birthday that I was coming, ready or not.
The age of my mother when I was born, and her complete surrendering of her own ambition, forms a large part of my story and how I found my way to immigration law. My mother’s sacrifice gnawed at her and manifested in a sometimes single-focused ambition for me, my brother and my sisters.
It takes a trauma to create a fissure in the hardest and most set piece of earth. My mother was that trauma.
I was the first person in my family, on both my mother and my father’s sides, to enrol in University. I am certainly the first person to go on and study law. Outside of my pop (my maternal grandfather), who fought in the Australian army in France in WWII, I was apparently the first person on both sides of my family to apply for a passport.
My ambition to look up and out into the world from our well-worn patch of Australia drew suspicion and unease from my family, with the exception of my mother. My choice to go into immigration law even more so.
This suspicion and unease towards the world and things unknown is, in my experience, a quintessential part of the Australian psyche and what it means to be Australian.
Around 55,000 people live in Wagga, and in the 2016 census 84% of them were born in Australia.
As a kid my world was overwhelmingly white: there was a Greek family who ran the fish and chip shop (and still does), and a Chinese family who ran the Chinese restaurant. Any descendants of the original inhabitants, the Wiradjuri people, were few and far between and certainly not in my circle of experience.
Anyone else quite clearly not from here was treated with curiosity at best. And at worst, well. Worst could be bad.
When you’re growing up, particularly in a place like Wagga, it never occurs to you that something outside of your own life experience can be truth. And if you insulate yourself via stagnation in the literal and metaphorical sense, generation after generation, you can avoid anything that might ever challenge that truth.
Since leaving Wagga I’ve grappled, as I guess we all do, with my own sense of identity. In particular I have thought about my family and their firmly planted feet and wondered: is the lack of movement a fear of the unknown, a lack of ambition, or a genuine satisfaction that a simple life based around things you know is the best life?
If you google ‘what does it mean to be Australian’ you will find numerous essays and articles harping on about ideas of mateship, a fair go, and specific foods like Vegemite: as if a yeast-based spread the colour of nightmares is an illustration of the true sense of our identity.
This is uncontroversial and the path of least resistance. The truth is a lot more complicated and much less palatable.
It is easy to point to the concept of mateship and make correlations to helping asylum seekers. To say that lawyers helping those asylum seekers are Australian in the way we understand the concept. Of course it is in our culture to look after those seeking a life free of persecution – our community is made up of descendants of those either ostracised from their old community or seeking a better life. Of course we are an open, multicultural society – we believe in a fair go for everyone, provided they put in the work.
But the idea that Australia is fair-minded to everyone is aspirational at best.
Identity is not formed around words and platitudes and looking inward. If we’re being honest we need to also look from the outside in. Our Australian identity is not just what we choose to push out into the world – it is defined by our actions, writ large.
I’ve had mixed feedback from friends my age in relation to what they learned of Aboriginal Australia and European settlement at school. In Year 7 at Wagga Wagga High I had a history teacher, Mr Wright, who once posed a scenario to us:
‘Aliens have landed in Australia. They are stronger and better armed than we are and want to colonise – what do we do?’
Our ultimate solution derived from our 12-year-old wisdom was to bargain with them and just give them Tasmania.
After the discussion, he flipped the script and said that this was the exact situation inflicted upon Indigenous Australians when European settlers arrived. My mind was blown.
He also taught us about the Myall Creek Massacre. Almost 30 Aboriginal women, children and old men were murdered by European settlers near Moree in NSW.
Of all the massacres of Aboriginal people in Australia, this one was not the largest by far, but was notable because seven of the white perpetrators were tried, found guilty of murder and hanged.
These were the first pieces of information that broke open my truth about Australia and what it means to be Australian. That break allowed room for me to question other things, and seek out other truths.
I wonder now how much this small experience led me to the law, and immigration law in particular. A feeling that if this was what it meant to be Australian, I needed to find another way.
You don’t have to dig deep to comprehend Australia’s fraught history with migrants post-European settlement.
The White Australia policy was borne of a fear of migrants from Asia and a changing cultural landscape. It is again relevant given rhetoric from politicians such as Fraser Anning in the context of Muslim Australians.
The Cronulla riots in 2005 were a boiling-over of under-the-surface tensions in a part of Sydney that is historically white and working class.
The rise and fall and rise again of Pauline Hanson and One Nation is telling of a strong undercurrent of cultural fear and racism.
And what of our treatment of asylum seekers?
Tampa. Children overboard. The use of the term ‘illegal’ by governments to describe those seeking asylum, even though the act of seeking asylum itself is not illegal. Temporary Protection Visas. The promise to ‘stop the boats’. The Pacific Solution and the opening and use of offshore processing centres. Facebook memes about refugees and government handouts. Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa in Parliament. Fear-mongering about African ‘gangs’ in Melbourne.
Willful defiance in the face of a 12-year-old girl on Nauru making repeated attempts at suicide because ‘it is better being dead than being here.
This is Australia in the current global news cycle. This is ‘Australian’ content in the UN. This is the conversation I have with my friends in California when they ask about my home.
This is the current iteration of ‘Australian’. Any action on the part of lawyers in the face of this, to assist asylum seekers, is by definition unAustralian. And it’s hard to reconcile the sadness I feel when I say that.
To say Australian values distil to a ‘fair go’ and a vague idea of mateship, and to extrapolate this out to the assistance of asylum seekers, is to ignore so much of what has occurred since European settlement.
Our actions speak louder than any platitudes about our dry sense of humour, or billboards of beaches and meat pies and wrinkled men wearing Akubras, squinting into the sun.
Under our egalitarian surface is fear and suspicion of the unknown, borne from generations of bedding down and looking inward.
From England to Australia to a standstill.
Going home to Wagga can be culturally jarring. Having moved to Sydney after finishing my first degree in 1998, I now live in the liberal bubble of inner west Newtown. Ironically, the pride some of my family feel due to the very lack of geographical migration I have described, I have myself because I found a way to leave.
Education lifted me out. My mother’s projected ambition lifted me out. Music and art opened up a way for me to seek another truth.
And I don’t think it’s wrong to be hopeful. We should hold on to that aspirational idea that being Australian has room for those fleeing persecution. To the hope that those wanting to help people seeking asylum will be considered Australian in every sense of the word.
But we are not there yet.
A version of this reflective essay first appeared on the Global Mobility Immigration Lawyers (GLOMO) blog, along with other 2018 GLOMO scholarship entries: https://glomo.com.au/blog/.
Karen Bromham grew up in regional NSW and completed a Bachelor of Applied Science at Charles Sturt University. She accidentally began a career in immigration law in 1998 when she began working at a specialist recruitment firm who also ran an exchange program. Karen has gone on to complete a postgraduate Diploma in Law in 2017, and is currently completing College of Law. Karen now lives in Newtown, NSW with her husband and two dogs.
 Australian Bureau of Statistics (27 June 2017), ’Wagga Wagga’, <http://quickstats.censusdata.abs.gov.au/census_services/getproduct/census/2016/quickstat/1034>
 Australian Government, Department of the Environment and Energy, National Heritage Places – Myall Creek Massacre Memorial Site, <http://www.environment.gov.au/heritage/places/national/myall-creek>
 B Doherty, ‘“Suicidal 12-year-old refugee on Nauru will die if not removed” doctors say’, The Guardian, 12 September 2018, <https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/sep/12/suicidal-12-year-old-refugee-on-nauru-will-die-if-not-removed-doctors-say>
The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).