Arguably, no human rights issue has politicised young Australians in recent years as much as the federal government’s policies around immigration; in particular, those seeking refuge in Australia by boat. For Dana Affleck, founder of not-for-profit organisation Road to Refuge and youth organiser at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, this groundswell of anger means that now is the time to act.
“People have had enough, and the majority of Australians are not OK with what’s going on,” she says. “We need to harness that moment and turn it into legislative and cultural change.”
In 2013, as a 23-year-old law student, Affleck launched the Road to Refuge website, where visitors are encouraged to take a virtual journey based on the life of a fictional person seeking asylum. Their stories are told from the first person in great detail (“We live in Afghanistan.. my father runs a small grocery shop in the main street”). The more we get to know the individual, the more painful it becomes when we’re asked to make impossible choices on their behalf once they’re forced to flee their home. “I really did believe that if people understood the shared humanity of it, or put themselves in the place of a person seeking asylum… that was my theory of change,” she says.
"The majority of Australians are not OK with what’s going on"
In just three years, Road to Refuge has grown to become a not-for-profit organisation that runs schools programs, community engagement campaigns and workshops. Her greatest tool throughout the process? Empathy. “I think that this government and the previous government have done a very good job of drawing on fear and drawing on the dark parts that are in all of us,” she says. “What we have to do is draw on the light parts.”
If we want to open up to a brighter, more equal future, Affleck says the best way to start is to “look out. There are Facebook pages that are run by people seeking asylum on Nauru. By doing the research, getting out there and finding out what people want, I think you’ll be able to know what the next move is. Are you going to make it political, are you going to go to your MP and say you’ve had enough? Are you going to see if you can start regularly visiting detention? Are you going to join a campaign? Are you going to volunteer at a place like ASRC? There are endless ways to help but I think unless it’s grounded in listening to the voices of people that have experienced it it’s going to be misled or misguided.”