BY GEORGIA CLARK
More than a year after the State Government pushed back bids to have the Refugee Welcome Centre in Callan Park transformed into short-term accommodation. The newly-elected mayor of the Inner West Council, Darcy Byrne, has renewed calls to convert the State Government heritage site into temporary accommodation for newly-arrived refugees.
The move comes as speculation around the integrity of the Turnbull Government’s treatment of refugees on Manus Island last week prompted widespread uproar among refugees and activists. The Refugee Welcome Centre has been operating as a drop-in day centre since the start of the year, and has welcomed around 900 refugees by directing them to various service providers.
But Byrne wants to see more services rolled out, including employment and education assistance.
“I think we have got to be a lot more ambitious. The truth is that the unelected inner west council didn’t progress the Refugee Welcome Centre anywhere near far enough. There’s enormous public support for us to offer a service there that offers a welcome and helping hand to people escaping war and famine… In the long term we’d like to see short-term accommodation for people who’ve recently arrived in Australia,” he said.
Byrne has criticised the former unelected council for failing to make full use of the resources available to it at the centre. Although more than 500 volunteers opted to volunteer at the centre when it opened, he says that the large majority of volunteers were never taken up on their offer.
The measure comes alongside a swathe of other initiatives introduced by Labor slated to keep the inner west diverse. With the majority of refugees living in Sydney’s west by gentrification, Byrne hopes the move will welcome more refugees into the inner city.
“Because of the cost of housing in Sydney we have seen increasing segregation along socioeconomic grounds but also ethnic grounds. The vast majority of asylum seekers and refugees coming to Sydney are landing in places like Fairfield and Liverpool. In part because there’s established communities there…but also because, let’s face it, the inner west has become such an expensive place to live… that’s why it’s so important that we be proactive in finding ways to include those people in our community,” he said.
With community consultation set to soon commence, the services could be rolling out in a matter of weeks. Timothy O’Connor from the Refugee Council of Australia says that local initiatives such as these should be applauded.
“The toxic political debate that exists around people seeking asylum in this country takes up all the debate, it is like a sinkhole when really there’s another side of the story… but on the other side, we have a long and strong record of success resettling people in Australia. We have a good resettlement program. Crucial to that is welcome by local communities. Local government areas play a very important role, the leadership shown by local government leaders is absolutely crucial to making people feel welcome, which is one of key attributes that leads to successful integration and ultimately a stronger society.”
According to Byrne, the State Government should be injecting more resources in Callan Park to make use of the near-derelict facilities.
“The State Government doesn’t want to spend a dollar in Callan Park, they’ve demonstrated that through their conduct over the last 5 or 6 years since they came to office. They’re overseeing the demolition by neglect of a range of heritage buildings in Callan Park.”
More than a year ago bids by the then Labor Councillor Simon Emsley to have the Welcome Centre transformed into refugee accommodation were pushed back by the then Baird Government. But Byrne is adamant that he still has these plans in sight, if he can win State Government backing.
“I thought the real opportunity here for state government is they could attract state and federal funding and other resources to rehabilitate some of the buildings for this use and it is disappointing short term accommodation hasn’t been supported by the state government at this point.
But we want to make the day centre and Refugee Welcome Centre running there such a success that over time we can convince them that short-term accommodation is a good thing.”