Women refugees inspire solidarity in their fight for justice

Meet Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality

Rathi Barthlote. Photo courtesy of Refugee WAVE.
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When the Sri Lankan State escalated its decades-long genocide against the Tamil population, Rathi Barthlote fled for her life. In 2006 she was among tens of thousands of Tamils who left their homeland for refuge in India. After enduring seven years of horrific living conditions and discrimination there, she made the perilous journey to Australia in 2013. In that same year, she lost her younger sister, who didn’t survive the crossing. Ten years later, Rathi still lives in a precarious limbo, along with 10,000 other refugees struggling for permanency and basic rights.

In February 2023, the Albanese government announced that 19,000 refugees, who arrived by boat before 2013, would be granted permanent residency. But it excluded 10,000 — like Rathi — who had not been considered genuine refugees, according the harsh Fast Track assessment system controlled by the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA). After almost a year of legal appeals — another excruciating and expensive process — they still wait, living in fear of being deported if they fail. Given what they escaped, deportation means a return to persecution and often death. Most are Tamils and Iranians, followed by refugees from Iraq, Pakistan and Myanmar. Of the 19,000 promised permanency, many also still await their fate. Most are Afghanis, primarily persecuted Hazaras.

Life on the precipice. Rathi’s 14-year-old daughter, born in India, was two-and-a-half when they came to Australia. Her nine-year-old daughter was born here. This is the only country her children know. But Rathi and her family cannot access Centrelink supports. Rathi also worries, “How will my husband and I get our children through university?” Due to a back injury, the result of working in aged care, she can’t work anymore to contribute toward the fees.

Higher education is big business, with much of its revenue coming from the steep fees they charge for international students. Bizarrely, refugees without permanent status are in this category. Rathi gives the example of a young refugee woman studying to become a doctor. “When she couldn’t meet the payments after her third year, the university told her to withdraw from the course. She is now working as much as she can to get the money she needs to finish her degree.”

Other women’s stories are similar. Piumetharshika came to Australia with her sister and mother from Sri Lanka when she was five. She is now 17. Her father, who had to stay in Sri Lanka, died last year — a loss made even greater by not being able to see him for the last time. Her sister had to discontinue her study at Canberra Institute of Technology, because their working mother couldn’t afford the fees. Fahime is a Kurdish woman who escaped Iran with her family, including her two children, in 2013. They’re permitted to work — and very hard — but not to have permanency.

Rathi has not seen her mother since she left Sri Lanka. Her children haven’t met their grandmother. This indescribable heartbreak worsens with the passing years. As Rathi says, “I can see her getting old.” Yet without a permanent visa, she does not have rights of family reunion or travel. Her mother has told Rathi that she has hidden her jewelry in a jar under a tree, in case she dies before Rathi can go back to see her.

Rathi explains, “Without rights to study, to healthcare or any other government support, refugees rely on our communities to survive. We can’t plan our lives. When we’re forced to drop out of a job or uni course, we don’t know what to do next. The physical and mental stress is enormous, and it’s constant.”

This is life for the 10,000 refugees. Most are surviving on bridging visas, which require renewal every three or six months. “If you are lucky,” says Rathi, “you get a bridging visa that grants you access to Medicare and the right to work. But many women and children do not have these rights.” Some refugees don’t have visas at all.

Enough! “Women and children are affected the most,“ says Rathi. “Women absorb and deal with all the stress, grief and problems of their families and communities. Everything depends on us.”

With Geetha Ramachandran, a fellow refugee, Rathi recently co-founded Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality (Refugee WAVE). “We had done rallies, visits to politicians and everything we could think of to make the government act on its promise. But with nothing changing, we had to think of something different. We wanted to put the focus on women. So we decided on a Walk for Freedom from Melbourne to Canberra, and we formed Refugee WAVE to organise it.”

On Friday morning, 22 September, a crowd of refugees and organisations, including Radical Women, gathered outside the Thomastown electoral office of the Minister for Immigration, Andrew Giles, for a rousing send-off. Twenty-two women in bright yellow high-vis jackets, donated by the Health and Community Sector Union, set off on their 640-kilometre, 30-day journey. Fifteen, including Rathi and Geetha, were Tamil, one a Sinhalese from Sri Lanka, five from Iran and one a Kurdish woman from Iraq.

In a petition launched prior to the Walk, Refugee WAVE set out their demands: permanent visas, work and study rights, abolition of the Fast Track system and the IAA, and permanent settlement for all refugees evacuated from Nauru and Papua New Guinea. The petition has already reached nearly 15,000 signatures.

Exhaustion, blistered feet, snakes, torrential rain, heat and high-speed highway traffic were challenges for the Walkers. Moments, such as looking for safe shelter, brought back traumas from the past. But none of this dented the women’s resolve. And it paled against the outpouring of solidarity and support all along the way.

Rathi describes the massive support from refugee and rural organisations, which included tennis and horse racing clubs, churches and more. She mentions a man who approached the women to ask what the issue is about. Shocked by what he learned, he spoke out in public with heartfelt solidarity.

The Walk inspired people around the country. From Perth and Brisbane, they wanted to join. On 18 October, the day the trekkers arrived in Canberra, over 1,000 refugees from across the country came to join them in front of the federal Parliament. On the other side of the continent in Perth, refugees and supporters walked 11 kilometres to mark the number of years on this tightrope. At the end of October, a 15-strong Refugee Women Walk for a Fair Go left Sydney for Canberra.

Debbie Brennan representing Radical Women at the Refugee WAVE send-off. Photo courtesy of Radical Women.

Refugee women connect struggles at both ends. Women and children are the biggest targets and casualties of war. They are 80 percent of the world’s ever-increasing exodus of refugees. The women walking for freedom to Canberra come from two of the most dangerous places for females, particularly for Tamils and Kurds. Afghanistan, too, stands exposed for its brutal misogyny and Palestine for Israel’s genocide.

Rathi is scathing of the racism and sexism in Australia, which she says affects refugees, First Nations and all working people. “The global profit system survives by oppressing, exploiting and dividing us.” She was outraged by the “racist lies” throughout the Referendum campaign for constitutional recognition of First Nations, which she saw as divisive.

Rathi explains that the fight for permanent visas would be a breakthrough in a bigger battle for refugee justice — the right to live in peace and participate in society as equals. Women fight for their children, she says. “Our victory will be for everyone.”

The courageous fierceness of women and girls, fighting for their rights as human beings, has come by boat to Australia. The women of Refugee WAVE bring a message: Our battles are interconnected; our struggle for liberation is joined. A call for open borders and full citizenship rights for refugees would greatly benefit our common cause.

What next? Refugee WAVE’s campaign doesn’t stop until their demands are won. It is reaching out for “supportive hands” in exposing the pain and suffering caused by Australia’s refugee policy. These women welcome everyone’s creative ideas and working together.

Contact Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality through their Facebook page or email via Radical Women at rw.aus@radicalwomen.org.

Sign the petition which is featured on the Facebook page.

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