Johnson Diversity Series – Frances Voon

Winner of the Community & Advocacy/Not-for-Profit category in the 2021 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards is Chinese-Australian, Frances Voon.

Frances Voon is the winner of the Community & Advocacy/Not-for-Profit category in the 2021 40 Under 40 Most Influential Asian-Australian Awards. Currently the Executive Manager at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law in Sydney, she provides strategic leadership to the world’s first centre for refugee law, promoting principled policymaking and informed public debate on forced migration. Frances’ writings advocating refugees’ social and economic contributions to communities have been widely published and she has co-produced an award-winning refugee storytelling project. Having dedicated her career to advancing the rights of forced migrants, Johnson Partners (JP) caught up with the Canberra native to discover what drives her quest for social justice.

JP After completing a Bachelor of Arts/Laws, you were selected as an Australian Youth Ambassador for Development to work in the UN World Food Programme’s refugee camp operations in Bangladesh. You returned after pursuing post-graduate study, overseeing support for Rohingya refugees and impoverished host communities. Then in 2012 you became Project Director for Jesuit Refugee Service in Jordan working alongside a team of refugee staff from Iraq, Sudan and Somalia to provide education and psychosocial support to urban refugees. How has this ‘on ground’ experience influenced your approach to international policymaking today?

‘Policy issues’ are fundamentally human issues – and people need to be at the centre of how we consider and address them. Communities affected by displacement understand the problems they face and their potential solutions, and I believe the role of those concerned about displacement is to listen and join in respectful partnership with affected communities. Displaced communities are as diverse as any other, and good policy must also recognise and engage with that.

JP Between your visits to Bangladesh, you pursued a Masters in international development at Oxford University via a scholarship grant, earning a distinction. How has it impacted your career path and professional outlook?

Studying abroad opened up my horizons in so many ways. It was an outstanding opportunity to learn not only from some of the leading scholars in my field, but from being immersed in Oxford’s diverse international community. I value now being part of a professional network that is truly global and, as a John Monash Scholar, a cohort of alumni who are committed to giving back to the community.

JP In 2015 you returned to Australia to become the inaugural Executive Manager at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. Can you outline what your role is there and what prompted your return?

The Kaldor Centre is the world’s first centre dedicated to the study of international refugee law, undertaking rigorous research and informing public policy on displacement issues. As Executive Manager, I guide the Centre’s strategic engagement to promote principled policymaking and informed public debate on displacement. When I joined, the Centre had only recently been established. I leapt at the opportunity to help build something that could make a uniquely valuable contribution to advancing lawful, sustainable and humane solutions for people forced from their homes.

“Communities affected by displacement understand the problems they face and their potential solutions, and I believe the role of those concerned about displacement is to listen and join in respectful partnership with affected communities. ”

 JP Shortly before settling back in Australia, you worked at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Evaluation Service in Geneva before being deployed to South Sudan to support UNHCR’s emergency operation. What do you consider your key accomplishments since returning to Australia?

The Kaldor Centre is widely known as an independent, credible voice of reason, cutting through the misinformation that often dominates the refugee debate, and providing a trusted resource for the public, civil society, journalists, and policymakers across the political spectrum. I’m particularly proud of our award-winning storytelling project, Temporary, which brought a wide audience into the lives of people caught in limbo in Australia’s asylum system. Our life-changing work to support refugee scholars has also been really important.

JP Focusing upon the Afghan and the more recent Ukraine refugee crises, Australia’s policy regarding refugees fares atrociously in comparison to other countries. Given that global displacement is at record high levels, what do you believe it will take from both a grassroots and political level to effect change?

Displacement is a global challenge that calls for international co-operation, not unilateral action. Over the last decade Australia has treated displacement as someone else’s problem, enacting harsh deterrent measures. That is unsustainable and inconsistent with community values of decency and fairness. Importantly, the Australian public has voiced its concern with the human cost of our policies; our new parliament must listen and act. As we show in the Kaldor Centre Principles for Australian Refugee Policy, a rights-based approach is both possible and in our national interest.

JP Noting that you have served on the Board of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) for over five years (which provides free legal support to people seeking asylum in Australia), what are the most significant concerns have you been alerted to via feedback from support networks?

The process for seeking asylum in incredibly difficult to navigate, particularly if you are vulnerable and English isn’t your first language. However, only a tiny proportion of people seeking asylum in Australia receive government-funded legal assistance. The community legal sector has worked against the odds to support as many people as possible, but we really should make government-funded legal assistance available to all people seeking asylum. Many other countries do this, recognising that it helps to ensure the process is fair and efficient.

JP Responding to the barriers refugees face in academia, you established a mentoring program for refugee scholars, offering one-on-one support, networking and skills development. When did this evolve and can you provide some examples of how it is providing transformative opportunities to refugee thought leaders?

Our mentoring scheme for scholars with lived experience of displacement was established in 2021. The scheme helped build mentees’ skills, knowledge and confidence, aiming to support them in achieving their professional goals. Over the course of the program, three mentees were awarded scholarships, another won a publication prize for her research, others made great advances in their research. One mentee said that joining the program was the best decision he’d ever made in his scholarly journey. The program seeded a supportive global network,which we hope will continue to grow and, over time, improve the representation of refugee scholars in our field.

JP You’ve said that “a society that sees dignity and strength in diversity can confidently welcome those seeking safety. Where policy and public discourse dehumanise refugees, we weaken the fabric of an inclusive community, to the detriment of all.” What key changes do you believe are essential to successfully integrate forced migrants and refugees within society and what initial steps would you recommend to implement this change?

Refugee stories and experiences may feel foreign to us because they are invisible – people are kept out of sight (and mind) by detention and deterrence, or due to the chilling effect of insecure legal status. They are often portrayed as passive victims, but when given the opportunity, can make an enormous contribution – as our history shows. We would do well to recognise the agency, skills and resilience of people who had to leave everything behind in search of safety. We must provide permanency to the thousands of refugees who have been granted only temporary protection so they can re-establish their lives (which the new government has indicated it will do). People should have access to education, work and essential social support as early as possible after arrival. In short, we should recognise and invest in people’s capacity so they can live with dignity and reach their full potential.


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