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Sarah Dale is Principal Solicitor at the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS). Having developed an outreach legal service for unaccompanied children, she worked extensively with children who were detained on Christmas Island and faced transfer to Nauru. Dale tells us about a case involving two brothers that fuelled her passion for justice and helping minors.

When I joined RACS in 2013, it was at the height of policies that were starting to negatively impact people arriving in Australia by boat. There was the no-advantage policy, and offshore processing had begun. I received a call from a teenage boy who, for the purpose of this article, I will call Sam. Sam had arrived in Australia by boat in early 2013 and was now in community detention. He asked if I could help his younger brother, who I will call Steven, who was stuck on Christmas Island and had been told he was being transferred to Nauru. His boat had been delayed, therefore he got caught in the immediate offshore transfer policy. I told Sam we needed to help him, too, as he didn’t have a visa and was in detention, but Sam was adamant that I was not to help him, that I needed to assist his brother. 

I spoke to Steven and discovered there were numerous unaccompanied children in the same situation. They were all at risk of being transferred to Nauru, which would make them ineligible to ever re-settle in Australia. Had Steven been transferred, he would never have been reunited with Sam. While working as their lawyer, I was repeatedly told there was nothing we could do to prevent their transfer. In the end, we were able to rally support and lodge a complaint that prevented these young people from ever being transferred.

In December 2014, Steven was reunited with Sam in Sydney. They had been apart for close to 18 months and it was just incredible to be there and support them through that protection process together. They were both found to be refugees and Steven has now finished high school in Australia. They’re now working here, which is incredible when you think about what could have happened.

I still get quite emotional about it today. They arrived in Australia with no one to support them or stand up for them. Most of these young boys are now on temporary visas, working and contributing to our society. If it hadn’t been for our principal lawyer, the executive director of RACS at the time, and the support of our pro bono community, we would never have been able to prevent their transfer.

These young people taught me everything. They taught me what it’s like to be resilient. I saw them be so humble in a process that was otherwise destroying them. I have no choice but to continue fighting these battles. The people I’m working with have no choice but to push forward, be resilient and fight for their rights. I personally can’t walk away from that right now. At RACS, we’ve supported over 150 unaccompanied children through the process of seeking asylum in recent years. 

Despite everything these young people have endured and despite later being found to be refugees, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on people seeking asylum and refugees. Sam and Steven have been a part of our community now for eight years and were completely left out of all support such as JobKeeper and JobSeeker. I think we’ve really left behind a big portion of our vulnerable community in this pandemic, and that’s people seeking asylum.