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Refugee Week: walk a mile in their shoes

Red Cross is urging Australians to better understand the challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees.

Monday June 18, 2012

Photo: Jupiter Images.

To mark Refugee Week (17 to 23 June) Australian Red Cross is urging fair-minded Australians to walk in the shoes of asylum seekers and refugees, to better understand the challenges and hardships they face.

"Asylum seekers and refugees have often been through some pretty traumatic circumstances before they even get to Australia," said Australian Red Cross spokesperson Hang Vo. "I know this from my own experience, my family came to Australia in 1978 as part of the first wave of Vietnamese 'boat people'.

"I was seven when our fishing boat arrived at a Malaysian refugee camp. Cries of 'land, land, we can see land' are imprinted on my memory forever. I didn't understand much, but I clearly remember the excitement and joy when twice a week Red Cross gave us food parcels, and when they collected family messages - it was the only way we had to stay in touch with family at home and in other refugee camps."

Those experiences would turn out to be the impetus for her career in the humanitarian field. For more than a decade, Ms Vo has worked with refugees in Australia and in war-torn countries, such as Pakistan and Sri Lanka, doing exactly what she witnessed, helping people send Red Cross messages to their family.

During Refugee Week you can read the stories of other refugees who, like Ms Vo, are proud to call Australia home. Refugee Week this year focuses on restoring hope and it is a time to promote understanding and celebrate the contribution and achievements of refugees in Australian society.

Each year, millions of people are forced to flee their homes for fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, social background or their political opinions. UNHCR figures show that at the end of 2010 worldwide there were some 15.4 million refugees, and some 837,500 asylum seekers awaiting an outcome on their application for refugee status.

Ms Vo said despite the many hardships refugees and asylum seekers have experienced, and continue to face, Red Cross finds they generally have the strength and skills needed to re-establish their lives. "To do this, however, they need support and access to services, something we help to provide.

"Refugees and asylum seekers have a legitimate claim to hope, and to have opportunities to achieve their potential. Through their skills, experience and resilience they can make a valuable contribution to their new communities.

"We should also remember that Australia received about 11,500 asylum claims last year, considerably fewer than countries such as Canada, Sweden and Belgium. In fact 12 industrialised countries received more asylum claims than Australia, many of them with a smaller land mass or smaller populations, so we really have nothing to fear," Ms Vo said "Refugees have been a part of the global movement of people fleeing persecution throughout human history.

"Refugee Week is a time for everyone - from the public to parliamentarians - to consider how well informed they are before stepping into the debate on these issues. Healthy debate is valuable, but it is also essential we start with some empathy, and a better understanding of the realities asylum seekers and refugees face, rather than leaping in with knee-jerk reactions that don't benefit anyone," Ms Vo said.

For media inquiries: Kim Batchelor 0457 542 113 or by email.