Supporting refugees and humanising the refugee debate

HSV Public Lecture by Penny Daly, Founder and President of The Welcome Group, at Balwyn Library on 24 September 2015

Immigration Detention Centre, Broadmeadows

As an experienced social worker, Penny’s first experience with refugees was at the Immigration Detention Centre in Broadmeadows, with 50 male teenagers (16–18) faced with disappointing news from immigration authorities. Conditions at the Centre were tough for the teenagers. One normally happy teenager deteriorated into an almost catatonic state, developed a painful ulcer and had to be carried into a hospital for emergency treatment. Educational and sporting opportunities etc. were very limited at the Centre. When Penny was managing the Centre, Chris Bowen, then Minister for Immigration, made a long visit. He talked, played sport and had dinner with the boys announcing three days later a change in policy to community detention.

Community Detention

Penny left the Centre and worked with the Red Cross in Adelaide to set up the Community Detention program for all of Australia and comfortably met the deadlines set by the government. Under this policy 4–6 young men lived in a house with a 24/7 carer. Educational opportunities etc. opened up for the young refugees. They were able to enrol in Australian High Schools (except in Perth), evening classes in English were available, they got an allowance, soccer team and gym membership, swimming lessons were available, bus and train travel were allowed. They were no longer bored and felt normal. They were all in Community Detention until the Abbott government put them back inside.

Penny then worked with City of Yarra with programs for children and youth. The vast majority of clientele were African refugees who came by plane through a UNHCR program. They were socially disadvantaged, with little English and living in housing estates. They were given practice in writing resumés and interviews. There were also music, dance programs and personal development classes.

Off-shore Detention

Penny’s next appointment was as case manager to 550 men on Nauru, 72 of whom had been on voluntary starvation for four weeks. As the only qualified welfare person on the island, by her second week she was in charge.

Penny considers voluntary starvation dangerous and hard to deal with. As a social worker she spoke to the men trying to give them a reality check, by urging for them to use common sense and take some positive action instead. The Salvation Army managers were going to send her home, but as her talk resulted in the number on voluntary starvation dropping overnight from 72 to 22, this did not happen. Penny spoke against some extremist pro-refugee activists who urge those on voluntary starvation to remain on it. Others also encourage refugees to self-harm.

She then obtained a position in Child Protection on Manus Island, which she found to be a hell-hole and unsafe, requiring constant security precautions when outside the detention centres. The team decided the children should be removed from Manus. Reports written by Penny with assessments from qualified teachers and youth workers were presented to the Minister, and two weeks later the children were removed. Due to the presence of malaria on Manus, women who got pregnant were sent back to the mainland. This resulted in many sleeping on the floor in cold Melbourne, but they were very happy because they were out of detention, off Manus and in a house.

Asylum seekers leaving detention were given six weeks of supported accommodation, then they had to find private rental housing with very basic information provided by ‘facility workers’ in their own language. On average, refugee families live on less than two dollars a day. They have to borrow their first and last month’s rent and  bond from Immigration Funding. Some beds and refurbished fridges were provided. Despite these obstacles young refugees are good at finding houses to rent in the six weeks allowed.

The Welcome Group

Penny was so unhappy to find pregnant women sleeping on floor in Melbourne that she asked some of her friends to help, and this more or less marked the establishment of ‘The Welcome Group’ which has supported over 3,000 houses across Melbourne over four years by supplying cutlery, crockery, fridges, beds, handmade quilts and blankets. The KOGO (Knit One, Give One) scheme, provides lovely handmade crocheted and knitted articles.

As these refugees have no work rights, the Welcome Group supplies activities to counter boredom. Portable small kitchen gardens were given to refugees. A music program was set up with Debra Byrne, who used her Facebook to find instruments for the refugees. An Art Space, set up at Victoria University during last Refugee Week, displayed the work of three refugee artists. Around 40 high school classes visited the display. Photos which became website-based were aimed at debunking myths about refugees in positive way, by educating and humanising.

The Welcome Group supported Afghan and Pakistani community candle-light vigils in the city. They also provided Xmas hampers and donated nappies (8,000) sorted into sizes. The Welcome Group works with Hazara community in Melbourne, while the St Kilda Mums Group supplies baby packs, prams etc.

The Welcome Group worked with Community Music Victoria at Docklands this year. They also work with refugee community groups; for example it took 45 refugees to their first football match this year. Some football clubs now have refugee programs. A forum on refugees put on by six groups of high school students on a Saturday attracted 250 high school students.

Penny is one of the people who deliver supplies for The Welcome Group. Facebook is a major communication tool for it and its networking. Throughout Penny’s talk she illustrated many of her talking points with slides. She then answered questions from the audience in the same enthusiastic manner which characterized her lecture.

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HSV members are encouraged to support The Welcome Group in any way they can.

Report by Mary Bergin

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