Dr Jessica Stroja argues that Australian governments need to be doing more to support refugee communities during lockdown.  

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact life around the world, Greater Sydney finds itself in the midst of an extended lockdown that was promoted by an outbreak of the COVID Delta strain that was first reported on 16 June 2021. The entire population of New South Wales now finds itself joining Greater Sydney in a snap lockdown that attempts to halt the rapid spread of the virus. With a growing number of exposure sites and more than 13,765 local cases since the first case in this outbreak was reported in June, residents are being asked to abide by increasingly tighter restrictions to help halt the spread of the virus. Despite authorities’ concern surrounding the rapid spread of COVID in New South Wales, anti-lockdown protests and restriction breaches continue to plague media headlines. As non-compliance with restrictions continued to occur, Minister for Defence Peter Dutton announced that up to 300 Australian Defence Force personnel would be deployed to assist New South Wales Police with their response to the situation in Greater Sydney. Since the announcement of the State-wide snap lockdown, it was determined that an additional 500 Defence Force personnel would be deployed to residential areas to assist police.

Media outlets rapidly reported on the decision to enlist the assistance of Defence personnel, who formally commenced working under the direction of the New South Wales Police on 2 August after undertaking training on the preceding weekend. The media continued to release updates on the deployment, with key messaging focussed around the role of the army as enforcers of lockdown rules. Statements such as ‘troops to descend’, ‘military deployed to help enforce lockdown’, ‘Army to begin patrolling Sydney COVID hotspot’ and ‘unprecedented show of force’ continued to occur in reports on New South Wales’ COVID crisis.

Such alarmist language did nothing to ease the concerns of the public who feared the roll-out of such measures. New South Wales Police Minister David Elliott responded to these concerns by saying that ‘people should not be fearful of ADF [Australian Defence Force] officers, who… had been helping with bushfire recovery efforts since late 2019. It shouldn’t be intimidating … you’d be surprised how regularly [the military] is used’. While it was acknowledged that Defence personnel’s roles also included contact tracing, welfare checks and delivery of emergency supplies, this did little to convince public figures that the presence of the Australian Defence Force in local areas would not traumatise its vulnerable refugee communities.

Senator Mehreen Faruqi

Greater Sydney is home to a significant population of resettled refugees, including many who are from conflict-affected locations in the Middle East, such as Syria and Iraq. Greens Senator Mehreen Faruqi, Liverpool Councillor Charishma Kaliyanda and Cumberland Mayor Steve Christou have each questioned how the presence of military figures could impact those people who have experienced a traumatic history of involvement with law enforcement or military forces. It has been claimed that these attempts to raise awareness of this impact on refugees is merely an attempt by ‘race-baiters’ to inflame ‘paranoia’. Yet an understanding of how to support these vulnerable communities is clearly lacking, and is a driving force behind these public figures’ repeated calls for assistance. Claims of race-baiting ignores the established understanding that trauma can resonate within families and across generations, even when people are no longer directly experiencing violence and displacement.

Australia’s history of refugee resettlement following the Second World War tells us that these concerns around the impact of a military presence within Greater Sydney’s refugee communities are very real. George Sudull, also known as Zbigniew, was a Polish refugee resettled in Australia following the Second World War. He recalled life in Poland in 1944, opening the door to his home and seeing ‘Russian-speaking SS troopers swarming about’. He reflected on his fear, believing that if he were to shut the door and deny their request to ‘come towards them’, they would shoot through the door immediately. This was not George’s first interaction with military forces that would shape his perception of these figures of authority. He had earlier lived through the stationing of ‘the feared Ukrainian SS and militia’ in his town, which became ‘a time of terror’, with the ‘shooting and the screaming of people burning [in a fire]’ remaining an horrific memory of that time.

Such experiences can continue to resonate within families for decades, even during resettlement. Krystyna Gruba lived in Nowy Korczyn, Poland, and would also become one of the many Displaced Persons resettled in Australia with her family after the Second World War. One of her most vivid memories of her time in Poland was the last time she saw her family and her home, when the ‘Gestapo woke us up with banging on the doors and windows’ before forcibly deporting her to Germany. Decades later and living in Footscray, Victoria, Krystyna awoke to a disturbance outside her house. Not realising she was safe after 54 years in her home, her fear palpable, she thought ‘the Nazis are here’. The disturbance was in fact the result of police chasing a man who had fled the scene of a crime by climbing across the roof tops in the street, before police secured his arrest on Krystyna’s property.

Police conducted a welfare check, ensuring Krystyna was safe after the disturbance in her yard. Yet the sight of the authorities at her door did nothing to ease her fear. It was a trusted friend who convinced her she was safe when he came to fix damage to her property the following day. If this is the fear felt by a resettled refugee, decades after her arrival in Australia, how significantly is the presence of the Australian Defence Forces impacting refugees in New South Wales, including those who are recent arrivals to the community? There must be clearly defined policies and processes to protect these people and ensure they do not endure fear and distress that can compound earlier traumas.

The main languages spoken in Greater Sydney’s refugee communities are Arabic, Assyrian, Farsi, Dari and Tamil. SBS foreign language news sources are reinforcing the militarised focus seen in English news sources, both in written text and imagery provided via their Assyrian, Arabic, Tamil and Dari news. My research into the long-term impact of displacement, trauma and encampment for post-Second World War Displaced Persons has shown that these experiences can continue to resonate within families for decades, even for those refugees who have experienced positive resettlement outcomes. As Krystyna’s experiences show, these earlier experiences of trauma can create fear and distress during times of engagement with figures of authority. These same concerns remain a key consideration for refugee communities in New South Wales today. This fear and distress will potentially lead to a situation that will not increase understanding or compliance, and may not help alleviate any of the authorities’ concerns regarding non-compliance of COVID restrictions during the current crisis.

My current research considers the role of faith-based organisations in the care and advocacy for refugees in Australia by drawing on archival collections and speaking with churches and faith-based organisations currently operating across Australia. Discussions with the Presbyterian Church of Eastern Australia and the Reformed Presbyterian Church of Australia during the course of my research revealed that these churches have a small number of congregations that are highly ethnically diverse. Despite my project’s main focus on the twentieth century, it has rapidly become clear that these organisations are fulfilling a vital role in our communities during the COVID era. At the height of the pandemic crisis in 2020, these faith-based gatherings became a safe and trusted source of information for refugees and migrants who had experienced trauma, particularly in relation to the government’s COVID response. Trusted entities such as these faith-based organisations require support from the government to help refugee communities understand the presence of Defence personnel in their communities. Until structured attention and support is provided to assist these types of organisations to support their communities, we risk rendering greater trauma to vulnerable people and endangering them if their fear impacts with their ability to comply with COVID restrictions and accept care and welfare checks provided by figures of authority.

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Jessica Stroja
Jessica Stroja

Dr Jessica Stroja is a Resident Adjunct Research Fellow in the Centre for Social and Cultural Research, Griffith University, and is a 2021 Australian Historical Association-Copyright Agency Early Career Researcher Mentorship Scheme participant. She received the Award for Excellence in a Research Thesis and the Chancellor’s Medal for Excellence in the PhD Thesis for her contribution to knowledge, significance of her research and research excellence in developing an understanding of the ways the legacy and memory of violence continue to influence post-Second World War refugees into the present day. Jessica’s recent research focuses on the role of faith-based organisations in the care and advocacy for refugees in Australia during the twentieth century. She also maintains a strong interest in museums, local history and their relevance within the surrounding landscape.