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Refugee Neil Para continues his 1,000km walk for freedom and certainty to highlight plight of thousands with no permanent visa

Media release

Sri Lankan refugee and asylum seeker Neil Para has completed 329km of his 1000-kilometre walk for freedom to raise awareness of the plight of refugees in Australia: especially those with no visas or visas that don’t give them certainty for their future.

Blisters are kicking in but Neil’s spirits are high due to so much support along the way from locals, travellers beeping horns and stopping to cheer him on and fellow refugees even travelling from Melbourne to relay their stories and support Neil.

Neil left Ballarat on August 1 and is trekking to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s electorate office in Marrickville, Sydney arriving in September. From Neil’s heartland to Albo’s.

With massive support from regional refugee advocacy groups, such as Rural Australians for Refugees, Neil plans to deliver a petition to Mr Albanese’s office and later attend a refugee rally organised by Refugee Action Collective.

Neil is averaging 30km per day. His location is currently Benalla in Victoria. He is being supported on stages of his journey by different drivers.

The dangers of walking along the highway particularly worry Neil’s family. His daughter has written to Albanese about her concerns for Neil and begging for timely Ministerial Intervention to head off undue risk.

Neil says: “My steps may be powerful but my energy comes from people like you.”

Local Rural Australians for Refugee members are providing meals, accommodation and support vehicles in a huge, carefully co-ordinated effort.

Mayors are meeting Neil along with a group of supporters and refugees and Neil presented each town with a copy of a book he has written, telling his story.

A large group of mainly Hazara refugees living in the Shepparton region met with Neil. The contribution of those who fled the Taliban’s return to Afghanistan to our regional economy cannot be over-stated.

The petition urges permanent residency (visas) for about 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers like Neil who cannot legally earn an income because they have been waiting for years for the Australian Government to grant them a visa that allows them to work.

15,000 signatures on petition

The petition has now topped 15,000 signatures. Greens Senator Nick McKim from Tasmania thanked people for signing and supporting Neil “as he sets out on his massive walk to draw attention to the thousands of people who, like him, had their claims for asylum rejected under the former government’s dodgy fast track assessment process.”

People can sign the petition here.

Ballarat city councillor Belinda Coates said: “Neil gives back so much to this community. You are doing this to adjust what has been happening to many in this country for too long. I hope this is the start of change.”

At the walk launch Brett Edgington secretary of Ballarat Regional Trades and Labour Council said: “Neil is the bravest man I know. At the end of this we hope that one day, we can attend Neil, Sugaa and the girls’ ceremony to become citizens, wouldn’t that be a wonderful moment. Ten years too long. Neil is very much a part of this community.”

Lieke Janssen from Refugee Action Collective said: “Neil is walking 1000km for himself, his family and 10,000 people that are still being left behind under the Albanese’s ‘No-one-will-be left-behind’ government. Politicians do not need to hide behind the ‘We cannot comment on individual cases’ excuse. Neil is walking for thousands. Every politician should come stand behind Neil and the thousands that deserve this.

“1000km is gonna be challenging and hard but it’s nothing compared with the challenges these refugees have been living with without a permanent visa for so long, every day they face consequences of living without this security. We need permanent visas and freedom now.”

Around ten thousand refugees missed out when the Federal Government announced in February that refugees who held Temporary Protection and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas could apply for permanent visas.

Neil is currently denied work rights, study rights and even Medicare access. Above all, his family lacks certainty about the future.

Apart from being granted freedom to work, Neil also wants refugees to be granted the freedom to vote, become an Australian citizen and have the essential rights that Australian citizens do.

Neil has lived in Australia in limbo for 11 years without a permanent visa, steady job or continuous Medicare with his wife Sugaa and their three young daughters: Nivash, Kartie and Australian-born Nive who has Australian citizenship.

They have lived under various immigration restrictions even though they are ambitious to build careers. Neil was a hairdresser in Sri Lanka and hopes to become a police officer in Australia, while Sugaa aspires to be an aged care worker.

The Federal Government’s Resolution of Status (RoS) permanent visa announcement this year paved the way for permanent visas for 19,000 refugees with a pathway to citizenship and family reunion (who were on temporary protection or safe haven enterprise visas at the time of the announcement). Sadly, Neil is one of thousands still missing out. Most of these were maritime arrivals.

Beyond trying to find certainty for his family, (for whom return to strife-torn Sri Lanka would still be dangerous as Neil is on an airport watch list), Neil is advocating for refugees who’ve been left behind in similar circumstances to him.

It’s a wide open road for the stateless

“I’m calling on the government to end the uncertainty for all refugees seeking a safe home. Please grant us permanent visas, health and the freedom to work,” Neil said. “I am also walking so that refugee children can have certainty.”

In the petition Neil says: “I fled war and persecution in Sri Lanka. Asylum seekers like me from militarised parts of the world seek safety in Australia. Instead, we experienced 14 months of detention in immigration detention centres that almost broke our spirit. But we are resilient, and we carry the hope that we’ll call Australia home one day. Australia represents refuge from the turmoil we were escaping.”

“Now I stand with refugees as the founder of the Union of Australian Refugees (UAR).”

The Union of Australian Refugees was formed this year to bring refugees together, create awareness and be their voice. Its motto is “Be Seen, Be Heard” and while they were seen during a four day sit down at Parliament House, he said it appeared they were not properly heard.

Neil says in the petition: “We are tired of living in limbo. It has been more than a decade. We have spent time in detention, the harshest time of our lives, but there is still no clarity about our status. We cannot return to a country where we don’t feel safe and we don’t feel at home. We yearn to contribute to the society we now call home.”

Neil’s immigration odyssey is described in greater detail in his book (link below). The family fled Sri Lanka to Malaysia where they remained for four years having been given refugee status by the United Nations. They came to Australia by boat and lived in detention in Darwin, then community detention in Dandenong before they came to Ballarat in 2013 (to seek fast-track visas, after applying for a permanent visa while in detention). Unfortunately, after four months in Ballarat their bridging visas were revoked, leaving the couple almost suicidal.

“We didn’t know what we were going to do, we didn’t even speak English,” Neil said.

Ten years later, Neil’s family is still waiting, and the strain of living on the charity of friends without any certainty has taken a huge toll on their mental health.

The family survives through the generosity of the local community, groups such as Rural Australians for Refugees, friends and allies.

Neil and Sugaa do volunteer work in Ballarat to give back to the local community which has supported them. Both have been continuously involved in community committees. Neil is a tireless volunteer for the SES and leads a crew, while Sugaa has volunteered for years in aged care (Ballarat Health Services) and at the visitor information centre. Their eldest daughter also volunteers at Vinnies and Ballarat Information Centre. Their volunteering has attracted awards.

The couple learnt English through their volunteer roles as their non-resident status precluded them from formal study.

Neil has also arranged local events in Ballarat to raise awareness of the mental health issues that refugees and asylum seekers experience due to being denied residency and the right to work.

Neil’s goals for the Walk

  1. Children born in Australia should be given Citizenship with the same rights as other Australian children.
  2. All children who go to or went to Australian schools should also be given Citizenship or permanent residency with a pathway to become Australian citizens.
  3. More refugees who are now residing in Australia should be included in the permanent visas process announced by Andrew Giles on February 13.2023.


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