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Refugee claimants – or asylum seekers – are people who, fearing persecution in their country of origin, have managed to come to Australia and lodge an application with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship to be recognised as a refugee in the hope of gaining protection from the Australian Government.
Refugee claimants in Australia are denied access to most mainstream social services including employment assistance, income support, English language classes, health and education services. In addition, their ability to participate in community life is limited as a result of long periods of uncertainty about their status and, in many cases, because they are denied permission to work – a policy designed to deter non-genuine refugee claimants.
Lawana* is one such client of the service. She worked as a social worker in a troubled West African home country she called home.
Lawana’s story touched our hearts here at Lifeline, so we thought – in the spirit of shared compassion, respect and justice – we’d share it with you.
*As part of UnitingCare Community's strict confidentiality policy, we have changed the name and parts of the story to protect the identity of our clients.
In a cultural environment where girls rarely complete high school - because of expectations relating to domestic duties, early marriage and pregnancy - it is an achievement in itself that Lawana had social work qualifications.
However, it was only a matter of time until Lawana’s human rights advocacy work brought her into conflict with the governing regime. In her home country, human rights organisations detail widespread corruption and accuse police and military forces of mistreating - even torturing - ethnic minorities, journalists, opposition leaders, homosexuals, political activists etc.
Lawana herself was detained and tortured.
When her husband died in a car crash, his family (as is customary) took charge of all of his possessions including the family home and farm. Lawana was heartbroken and powerless. She and her three children moved in with her mother and Lawana busied herself with looking after the children.
Her uncle, who worked as a driver for his local village chief, suggested Lawana move down into the south of the country where she could find work. It sounded like a way out of poverty. Unbeknown to her, her uncle had pre-arranged that Lawana, together with other women, be offered as a bride to the chief as a gift to celebrate his 60th birthday.
She was resistant but once again became caught up in a culture-bound arrangement where a woman’s value was limited and pre-determined.
Two of the new wives were forcibly circumcised and subsequently died due to untreated infection. As Lawana
was next, she made her escape.
Without a plan or resources, it was just a matter of time before she was caught by a gang of workers under the chief, brutally raped and beaten. After being hospitalised, she somehow managed to find her way back home to her mother.
Lawana’s unwillingness to comply with the wishes of the chief combined with difficulties with the governing regime, saw a warrant issued for her arrest. The enraged chief threatened to kill her children. Upon finding a safe orphanage for her children, escape was her only option.
After another arduous process, Lawana was given a ticket by friends to Sydney, as it was her only chance for safety and a new life. Lawana is currently being assisted by the Refugee Claimaints Support Service and the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service in Brisbane in her application for a Protection Visa.
If this is successful, Lawana will apply for her children to come to Australia - to safety.