A community battered by natural disasters and COVID is still finding room in its heart for refugees and asylum seekers, according to Ballina Region for Refugees Vice-President Stanley Yeo.
As Australia emerges from a long era of ignoring its legal obligations to the least fortunate, there are hopes that the new federal government will ratchet down the cruelty and do things differently when it comes to refugees. So far there have been mixed signals, but at least one famous family are likely to soon be on their way home to Biloela in Queensland.
Defying stereotypes, regional Australia has shown itself to be the most welcoming in recent years. Ballina is no exception. BR4R’s Stanley Yeo has an academic background as a professor in criminal justice, and has been actively involved with Ballina Region For Refugees since its origins in 2015.
How did it start?
Mr Yeo told The Echo that BR4R founding member Sue Kelly was exasperated by the way the government was dealing with refugees and asylum seekers. She went to demonstrations in Canberra then returned to Ballina, asking ‘what can we do to help in regional Australia?’
Mr Yeo had just retired and decided to devote his energy to the new action group. Their first action was to persuade Ballina Council to become one of hundreds of LGAs around Australia to formally welcome refugees.
There were events at local libraries about refugee issues, and the Ballina group began to grow, with members as far west as Lismore and north to Ocean Shores. BR4R came to realise that a regional Homestay Program was needed.
‘In this lovely part of the world, we invite refugees and asylum seekers living in cities to come and have some respite,’ said Mr Yeo, ‘and to share Australian friendship and hospitality from anywhere between a few days to a couple of weeks.’
He said the Homestay Program had to go into recess during COVID but would be resuscitated again soon. ‘It’s fantastic, mutually beneficial. We Australians provide support, but you also meet these people firsthand and realize they are humans like us, sharing culturally.’
A small organisation that pushes above its weight
Mr Yeo says the spirit and the motivation for Ballina Region For Refugees comes from the heart. ‘They just push us along, you know, we get energized, we meet like-minded people, and it’s just so wonderful. I never really looked back. It’s been the best thing for my retirement.’
His hope is that the ALP’s stated policies during the election campaign will now be translated into action, with the need to ‘pin them down to the promise on a pledge that was made to convert the temporary protection visas into permanent ones. That’s massive.’
Can you explain more about the TPV situation? ‘These are the cases where the Australian government has, through a tedious process of getting through the applications, found these people to be genuine refugees,’ said Mr Yeo.
‘They’ve gone beyond asylum seekers, they are properly designated as refugees. But what the Australian government has been doing is to invent these visas, as the name suggests, which are only temporary. They last anything from three to five years.
‘Even though they are genuine refugees, the idea is that if and when it is found that the country that they have fled from, the threat towards them has dissipated, then they have to go back. Right? But there’s so many cases – Iraq, for example – where there’s no question that these people are going to be persecuted, maybe even killed, if they go back.’
Stanley Yeo says that under the arrangement of the last government, every few years people would have to re-apply. ‘Six months later, they get a renewal and that life keeps going on. So there is no sense of permanency, no opportunity to put down their roots.’
He said Labor’s promise to change that policy could affect as many as 19,000 people in Australia who are seeking permanent residency. These people would then be eligible to apply for a family reunion.
‘There’s hundreds of these cases for individuals with families; their spouses, their children, some of whom they’ve never seen for nine or more years.’
He said BR4R would soon be sending a delegation to Justine Elliot to congratulate her and press her to make this promised change a priority.
Ballina Region For Refugees is known for its active fundraising, which includes appearances at markets, trivia nights, BBQs, screenings and charity sports events.
Next up is a screening of Limbo at Byron Theatre on June 2, about a disparate group of refugees stuck on a remote Scottish island awaiting the results of their asylum requests. Tickets are available now, for $25 from the theatre.
All funds from that event are going to support refugees and asylum seekers who were suddenly released from detention in the dying days of the Morrison government and are now in desperate need.
The screening will include a short film from Western Australia’s Dawn Barrington, a ‘tireless advocate’ who has been assisting many of these people, mostly men, together with BR4R.
Mr Yeo said, ‘it’s fantastic for these people to finally be released into the community. But basically what the past government has done is, here’s three weeks of accommodation, here’s $300. Thank you very much, off you go.’
Donations from BR4R are assisting with immediate practical needs for these refugees, as well as finding case workers and other assistance to help the newcomers find their feet and integrate into the community.
Can you say something about how the Ballina community has responded to the refugee issue over the years you’ve been involved?
Stanley Yeo says it’s a hard thing to test, but there are very optimistic signs, even as the local flooding crises continues to reverberate.
‘As a group, BR4R is very mindful of the effect of the catastrophic floods in our region,’ he said. ‘There’s a great need here. People are first and foremost thinking about the homeless people, the people who have been affected, jobs and so forth, in our region.’
While this means that BR4R is being a bit more cautious about pushing for the ongoing needs of refugees, he sees a common bond between fellow Australians and refugees from overseas, which has been deepening over the years.
He says that when the group was doing monthly roadside rallies near Ballina Fair, they would hold up cards saying ‘seeking asylum is not illegal, bring them home, honk for humanity, and so forth.’
Mr Yeo said they did a tally each week of positive and negative responses, and found there was ‘overwhelming support, nine out of ten’.
Mr Yeo told The Echo that when Kabul fell to the Taliban that really stirred things up. ‘We had people approaching us, wanting to volunteer, donating money.’
In a clear case of the Ballina community putting its money where its mouth is, he says annual donations to BR4R have more than tripled in recent years. In spite of all the disasters affecting the community, it seems people are becoming increasingly generous.
‘I’m very hopeful,’ said Stanley Yeo. He wonders if the collective suffering has made Australians more aware of fellow feeling with people going through hard times in other countries, having seen the same phenomenon at work since the war started in Ukraine.
Perhaps fear of the other is being overwhelmed by generosity? Maybe the balance is shifting? ‘I hope so,’ said Stanley Yeo. ‘After the last government, the only way is up!’