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A Change from Chains

5 June 2015 at 5:22 pm
Xavier Smerdon
Grant Mitchell’s interaction with a Rwandan refugee more than 20 years ago inspired him to dedicate his life to helping asylum seekers. Mitchell, the Director of the International Detention Coalition (IDC), is this week’s Changemaker.

Xavier Smerdon | 5 June 2015 at 5:22 pm


A Change from Chains
5 June 2015 at 5:22 pm

Grant Mitchell’s interaction with a Rwandan refugee more than 20 years ago inspired him to dedicate his life to helping asylum seekers. Mitchell, the Director of the International Detention Coalition (IDC), is this week’s Changemaker.

Mitchell’s organisation is a civil society network with over 300 members from more than 70 countries.

A social anthropologist in international migration, Mitchell has worked for more than 21 years on refugee and asylum seeker issues, including at Hotham Mission and Australian Red Cross.

Mitchell won the Australian Human Rights Award in 2002, and was nominated for the 2004 French Human Rights Prize for his work in assisting women and children in immigration detention.

He has extensive experience in asylum and detention policy in Europe, Americas, Australia and the broader Asia Pacific region, particularly his work in the development and implementation of alternatives to immigration detention and case management models.

What are you currently working on in your organisation?

The IDC are excited to have embarked upon our new 3-year strategic plan that will see us further expanding our work globally and in the Asia Pacific region. We will be working with our members and meeting Governments to expand the use of alternatives to immigration detention, particularly for children, by providing practical and technical advice and raising awareness that there are better ways than detention.

What drew you to the Not for Profit sector?

When I was just out of University in 1993, in my first job with asylum seekers, I worked with a young Rwandan asylum seeker. To save his life, his grandmother had buried him under a tree along with some of the few possessions the family had. When he dared to climb out he discovered all his family had been killed. At the age of 14, he then made his journey alone from his massacred village.

I was his youth worker at the time, and one day he disappeared and I discovered weeks later he had been detained in a local prison after his refugee claim was rejected. I’ll never forget seeing him scared and alone in that prison cell begging for my help. It changed my life.

I went to see him the next day but he was gone, deported, and never heard from again.

I didn’t manage to help him, but vowed to do something for others in his situation – and that is exactly what I have been doing ever since.

How long have you been working in the Not for Profit sector?

I’ve been working in the sector for 21 years.

What was your first job in the Not for Profit sector?

My first job in the Not for Profit sector was working with asylum seekers in a reception centres living freely in the community, and crucially it was in Sweden. When I came back to Australia in 2000 and worked in the NGO sector I realised how different our practices here were with asylum seekers being detained- even though we were dealing with such similar challenges.

It opened my eyes up to what has become a lifelong passion – that asylum seekers can be supported and managed in the community without the need for unnecessary detention.

What is the most rewarding part of your work?

I love that my job is to scan the globe for opportunities for change. I am privileged in my position that I am able to see change happening and to be a part of that change. It may be through a meeting with a government representative that has led to one of those moments where you can see that you’ve provided a new perspective and inspired a more humane response to a situation, or it may be seeing one of our members of civil society develop and begin to inspire change from within the sector.

Regardless of the situation, I am constantly reminded of the value of a network in sharing and promoting best practice for change, and I am proud that our network is being led from Melbourne, Australia.

What has been the most challenging part of your work? And how do you overcome that?

Working in prisons and places of detention is tough. It takes its toll emotionally and physically.  I have seen the impact of this work, both on the lives of people locked up and imprisoned, and on the lives of those sacrificing much to help them.

I’m inspired by the support and solidarity developed over the past few years by the members of IDC. When difficult times have come, like harsh policy change, the harassment or death of members or even the ups and downs of life in general, there has been a true spirit of support which has inspired me and keeps us all going.

What do you like best about working in your current organisation?

Knowing that we can make a difference, both as individuals and collectively. The passion, commitment and hard work I have seen amongst our friends and members across the globe working for the rights of those in detention inspires me daily. There is strength in numbers. When people come together with a shared goal, a shared vision, change can happen.

I consider my greatest achievement to be …

It’s hard to think of just one, but definitely my work to see children released from detention in places from Australia to Belgium to Japan over the years.

I’ll never forget visiting a detention centre in Belgium in 2008 and seeing children locked in a prison-like facility that had windows with bars on them, overlooking green grass and a playground. The children would stare through the bars longing to be able to play. It was so cruel and heartbreaking.

The next day I managed to get a meeting with Belgium Immigration Minister to discuss alternatives to immigration detention for children with one of our NGO members, and she then asked me to stay for 4 days to work with her department on a new case management model for children. On the 4th day as I was about to fly home she announced to the Parliament and media that all children would be released from detention into the new community model.

To this day I feel privileged and humbled by that opportunity, and it has driven me and the IDC to work further with other governments to see no child detained.

Favourite saying …

“In a gentle way, you can shake the world.” ? Mahatma Gandhi

What are you reading/watching/listening to at the moment?  Why?

The BBC World News App to keep up to date globally and Shirin Ebadi’s The Golden Cage for inspiration.

Through your work, what is your ultimate dream?

I envisage a world where our organisation does not need to exist. Where people are not held in immigration detention.  

Detention is so damaging, to the individual and to the country as whole. The human costs are incalculable. It is also unnecessary as there are alternatives that are more humane, efficient and cost effective than detaining people. That is why we focus on alternatives to immigration detention.

What does a typical day for you involve?

Running an international network is never dull. Travelling to more than 20 countries a year and with a team in 5 countries and members in 70 countries means each day is different.

On any one day I will work on detention issues covering at least 10 countries. This might include preparing to meet a government, speaking to the media, finalising new research, to strategizing with our NGO members on the ground. It’s exhilarating and exciting work.

What, or who, inspires you?

The amazing, passionate IDC team and members. They have captured our vision to see no-one suffer in immigration detention, and they have realised that vision in ways I could never have dreamt of.

I’m very proud and humbled by them.

Where do you feel your passion for good came from?

Standing up for, and finding ways for the rights of minorities to be heard and upheld, is in my blood. I’ve always been a very passionate person, and was instilled with a strong sense of social justice from my mother and grandfather. I think this was compounded for me growing up gay in country New South Wales and being confronted by the homophobia people faced and the racism faced by the indigenous community.

Now I see first hand the suffering and silenced voices of people in detention – we all must do something.

Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist  |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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