A lifelong advocate for refugees
17 June 2022 at 4:35 pm
As director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Jana Favero is determined to keep advocating until people seeking asylum are treated fairly in Australia. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Jana Favero’s passion to help refugees started when she was just a child.
After visiting a refugee camp in Pakistan in the ‘80s, she saw firsthand the trauma that people were capable of inflicting on each other.
She has since made it her life’s work to work for and with refugees for greater refugee rights.
Having started out as a volunteer, she began working with the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) – Australia’s largest human rights organisation providing support to people seeking asylum – 12 years ago. She is currently director of advocacy and campaigns.
In her role, she has become a regular spokesperson in breaking news on human rights and refugee policy on and offshore. Her work has sharpened her social justice values and entrenched in her a basic belief that seeking asylum is a point in someone’s life – not a definition of identity.
In this week’s Changemaker, Favero talks about the most challenging parts of her role, what she is most proud of, and why every day should be Refugee Day.
How did you get into the job you’re in now?
I’ve always been really passionate about refugee rights and refugee issues. I actually visited a refugee camp in Pakistan in the early 1980s when I was a child.
There’s a long backstory there, but I’ll try and summarise. My father’s Italian, my mum’s Australian, they were travelling in the ‘70s, they met in Afghanistan, fell in love with the country but also with each other. And then in the early 1980s, when Russia invaded Afghanistan, my dad, as a journalist, wanted to document what was happening. He was killed while filming.
So my mum took three little kids over to Afghanistan to finish the film and to try and recover his body. We were unable to recover his body, but she did finish the documentary. While we were there, I visited refugee camps in Pakistan where people, mainly women and children from Afghanistan, had fled. And I think that stayed with me my whole life. It explains a lot about my commitment, my passion and why I’m working, where I’m working.
Alongside that, I didn’t just want to be someone who was for want of better words a “White Saviour”. I wanted to make sure that my skills and expertise would make a difference. And when I saw the job advertised for ASRC, it was a three day a week job 12 years ago, working in communications and marketing, managing all of the external communications and requests for lobbying. And that fitted with my expertise, with a background in politics and marketing. At that stage I’d been working 10 years in corporate and had wanted to move into not for profit, but wasn’t sure exactly how to. So, you know, getting into the job at ASRC was a perfect match for the skills and experience that I had, but also that passion to work for and with refugees for greater refugee rights.
What does a typical day look like for you?
A typical day is usually pretty frantic, especially over the last nine years with dedicated attacks on the rights of refugees from Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton. Things were coming up daily, whether that was a demonisation of refugees in the newspaper, new legislation, or more and more people being detained.
So the typical day starts with scanning what’s happened in the media just to see if there’s anything that we need to respond to. Having a quick chat with my peers and colleagues at ASRC. I’m part of a fantastic advocacy and campaign team, so we set our priorities for the day. I would usually have one media interview about something. I would probably have a separate collaboration meeting. We have some really clear campaign areas, but also focus on supporting refugee-led campaigns. So I would be in discussions with refugees every day about what role I can play, and ASRC can play, to help their advocacy.
Probably a typical day would also involve me chasing, hassling, pressuring a politician of some sort. So it’s a bit of everything. Plus, all the boring admin stuff that you have in jobs.
What has been the most challenging part of your role?
The challenging part of my role [for the past few years] has just been the volume of attacks on the rights of refugees. I was constantly asked, why did the government do this? Why would Peter Dutton do this? Why would Scott Morrison do it? And the hardest thing is just constantly planning for the worst. What is the worst thing that can happen to someone if they speak out? Because the government would probably do that. What is the worst thing that could happen in terms of policy change? It’s [hard] knowing that certain groups of people in Australia have different rights because of an ideology of the government. And being contacted daily by refugees asking “what is going to work?” “Why should someone else be released but not me?” – and just not having the answers. Trying to continue to give people hope and ensure that people have a voice when they’ve been intentionally silenced.
I acknowledge that the government has changed now. Certainly with the change of government there is so much hope. But there’s also the reality of nine years of an attack on the rights of people. We recently did a consultation with refugees asking what change would make the biggest difference in their lives, and I’ve got 65 pages of changes that are needed to reform refugee rights and policy.
So the biggest challenge now is how to work with the new government to implement all the positive change that they have already committed to, but in a way that is fast enough to make a difference to the lives of people – while also understanding that there’s also climate, there’s justice for First Nations, there’s gender issues, poverty, inequality. So I suppose the real challenge now is how do we continue to keep a spotlight on refugee issues and prioritise the significant reform that is needed in this space.
You talk about the need to keep a spotlight on the issue, and World Refugee Day (20 June) is around the corner. Why is it important to have a day like that?
Look, there has been a lot of debate about one single day. What ASRC is committed to is making sure that Refugee Day is not just tokenistic. I mean, every day is Refugee Day in our work. And this is an opportunity to put a spotlight on what is the situation facing refugees, but also for refugees to own their own narrative and for refugees to be front and centre. Because so often refugees are labelled, they’re demonised and they’re silenced. So hopefully, at least in Refugee Week, that space and place is created for refugees to tell their own story. Hopefully from that one day and then one week, that triggers a repeat of that throughout the year.
What advice do you have for others wanting to make a change in the world or for those who, like yourself, are in corporate roles looking to move into the purpose sector?
For me, the path was by starting to volunteer with organisations. But also when I worked for an accounting firm, then William Buck, I started and led a corporate social responsibility program with the organisation. So that’s another thing you can do. There are things that you can do within the world you’re working in, and then also try and transition – through volunteering, through networking, through raising awareness, through using your social media for family and friends. We’ve found that the most persuasive arguments for refugee rights are when you hear it from a friend.
So whichever cause it is that you’re committed to, really live and breathe that commitment through your work, through your neighbours, through your conversations. Then there are also things that you can follow. I mean, for example, there are so many incredible refugee advocates, follow them on social media and share their stuff. Whatever the issue you care about, there are so many ways that you can use your voice to add to the call. And ask people. For example, if you are passionate about First Nations justice, ask First Nations what’s the most important role that you can play.
It has been a really challenging nine years, but we have actually seen some wins and those wins have been driven by people power, such as Kids Off Nauru, such as the Medevac bill passing, such as defeating a couple of really evil bills. So use your voice. Use your privilege as well. If you’re born in Australia and you can vote and you have access to your MPs, use that.
You talked about some of the wins there. What are you most proud of in your career?
There would be two things. First and foremost, it would be the Medevac legislation getting passed. That was a huge piece of work. It was a collaboration not only across the sector, but also in contact with refugees on Papua New Guinea and Nauru. So it was really close collaboration and it involved public sentiment, it involved lobbying, parliamentary change and multi-party support. You had the Greens, you had Labor, you had Central Alliance, you had incredible independents led by Andrew Wilkie, Rebekha Sharkie, Kerryn Phelps, who really drove that change. Cathy McGowan as well. It was the first time a government had lost a vote on the floor of Parliament in decades, in 70 years. So that was really significant. So I’m really proud of the role that I played individually, but also that ASRC played.
The second one is also a really important one. I’m really proud of the commitment of ASRC to ensuring that refugee advocacy is led by refugees. Our advocacy campaigns team has over 50 per cent of people who have a refugee background. While we have our own organisational priorities of advocacy, we also commit to supporting refugee-led campaigns such as Action for Afghanistan. And so I’m really proud to work for an organisation that not only does service delivery but prioritises and centres the voice of refugees in all we do, including our campaign and advocacy work.
What do you do when you’re not at work?
Oh, my gosh. I have three kids, a three, a six and an eight year old. So I’m pretty busy with them. When I’m not at work, I’m usually surrounded by chaos and the wonderful energy of kids, family and friends. I still have very strong links to my family in Italy, so I’m often thinking and dreaming about or planning trips to Italy. I also love politics, and I’m too addicted to Twitter.
I ride my bike. Pre-COVID, I used to do trapeze. I’m a very outdoorsy, active person. So being outside as much as possible.
I know that there’s often that saying that if you want something done, you give it to the busiest person. I am one of those busy people, and I get energy from it.