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Accepted paper:

Centring lived experience, denying state authority: Decolonising the refugee movement in settler Australia

Author:

Tess Altman (University of Southampton)

Paper short abstract:

This paper presents attempts by migrants, refugees and Indigenous Australians to decolonise the refugee movement in Australia. I argue that decolonisation is an active yet contested process and practice within refugee movements, that requires ongoing and sustained ethnographic attention.

Paper long abstract:

The Australian refugee movement is a heterogeneous space made up of NGOs, lobby and activist groups, community organisations, religious groups, migrant and refugee organisations, and Indigenous groups, among others. They are united in their opposition to Operation Sovereign Borders, the Australian state's hostile deterrence policy that criminalises people seeking asylum attempting to reach Australia by boat. However, tensions exist within the movement about the best ways to practice solidarity and achieve their goals. Based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Melbourne in 2015-16, in this paper I delve into racialised dynamics within the refugee movement by examining attempts to decolonise movement spaces and practices. Decolonisation, as an ongoing process of decentring dominant (mostly white, western) actors and epistemologies, takes on specific dimensions in settler contexts (e.g. Land 2015). In Australia, decolonisation is pursued by various groups including Indigenous Australians as traditional custodians of the land, (predominantly second-generation) migrants of colour, refugees, and people seeking asylum. I present two examples of decolonising the refugee movement. One is a social media campaign run by people of colour designed to "call out" the lack of diversity in the composition of speakers for a refugee rally, advocating for speakers with "lived experience" of seeking asylum. The second example is an Indigenous-refugee solidarity event, denying the authority of the Australian state through the staging of a traditional Indigenous welcome ceremony. These examples suggest that decolonisation is an active yet contested process and practice within refugee movements, that requires ongoing and sustained ethnographic attention.

panel AA12
Helping in an era of hostility: Political agency and moral contestations in civil society movements for and by migrants