Home » This man plans to walk 1,000km from Ballarat to Sydney. Here's why

This man plans to walk 1,000km from Ballarat to Sydney. Here's why

Key Points
  • A Tamil refugee in regional Victoria is planning to walk to Sydney over 32 consecutive days.
  • Neil Para has set himself a target of covering 30 kilometres a day.
  • Para and his family arrived by boat in Australian waters in August 2012.
When Neil Para fled Sri Lanka, he carried few possessions.
He, his wife and child reached Malaysia, where they lived for four years before deciding to board a boat headed for Australia.
"We left Sri Lanka because our life was in danger," the 44-year-old Tamil refugee told SBS News.

"We reached Malaysia, where we were found to be refugees by the UNHCR. But there is still no certainty for us in Malaysia, even though we were found to be refugees. So that is when we decided to get on a boat to Australia."

Para and his family arrived by boat in Australian waters in August 2012. They were taken to the detention centre on Christmas Island under the government's offshore detention policy for boat arrivals.

"I arrived with no English language skills. The time in detention scarred me," he said.

Surviving on community support

The Para family ended up spending months in offshore and onshore detention facilities, including in Darwin and Dandenong, before settling in Ballarat in September 2013.
He said the move to Victoria's third-largest city was part of what immigration officials told him was a program to fast-track visas for refugees and asylum seekers moving to regional Australia.
But Para said the promise of a visa was later reneged on, and the family's bridging visas were removed.
He was left in a situation where he struggled to survive without the ability to work.

He volunteers with the State Emergency Service in the evenings, while his wife volunteers in aged care and for the local community centre.

Neil Para with his wife Sugaa and their daughters at a park.

Neil Para is pictured with his wife, Sugaa and their three daughters. He says he and his wife learned English through their volunteering efforts. Source: Supplied / Neil Para

"We use every single opportunity to volunteer," Para said, who received the Best Neighbour Award in 2020 through the neighbourhood network Nextdoor Australia.
"Because we're not allowed to study English, this is how we improved our English. Listening and mixing with the community, we just integrated."
Para said he and his family wouldn't be able to survive without the support of the local Ballarat community.
"Their help is the reason why I've kept going for my family," he said.
"My family is living because of the generosity of the Ballarat community. We have no Medicare, no healthcare, no living allowance - nothing. The Ballarat community came together to help. They are paying the bills, and they are paying the rent."
Asylum seekers and refugee boat arrivals that entered Australian waters before 1 January 2014 were subject to a different set of visa processing rules that limited their ability to seek a more permanent visa status.
Para fell into that group of about 30,000 people known as the Legacy Caseload.
A blanket ban was applied to individuals in this group, preventing them from having a refugee protection visa application processed unless the Immigration Minister exercised personal discretion to override the ban (known as "lifting the bar").
A found the set of policies raised red flags for breaches of Australia's human rights obligations.

Areas of concern included that the policies could result in asylum seeker families "being left without any source of income"; as well as limited access to legal advice and constrained review options at the tribunal.

Long-term uncertainty takes a toll

Among those providing a helping hand was the Ballarat Rural Australians for Refugees group.
The group's convenor, Margaret O'Donnell, said the community has rallied behind Neil, his wife Sugaa, and their three daughters aged between 10 and 15.
"We have got to know Neil and his family. They do a lot of volunteer work in the community," she said.
"It's in the public interest, especially for the people of Ballarat - and other people who know the family - that they are given a permanent visa so they can get on with their lives.

"The other difficulty is when the children turn 17, they probably won't be allowed to continue further study because of the regulations."

O'Donnell said while Para's situation is on the more extreme end, there are thousands in the Australian community living on a bridging visa with restrictions, including limited work rights and no access to Medicare or educational support.
"The uncertainty is just no good for people's mental health. They can contribute - and are contributing - to society. They've suffered long enough," she said.
Refugee advocates say there are as many as 12,000 asylum seekers and refugees in Australia who were excluded from the on a pathway to a permanent visa.
Those eligible included 19,000 people - from the Legacy Caseload - who had been living in Australia on temporary protection visas (TPV) or safe haven enterprise visas (SHEV).

Neil and his family were among the up to 12,000 people who missed out.

Research links immigration detention with post-traumatic stress disorder image

SBS News

O'Donnell said after more than a decade, it is time for Australia to close the chapter on its offshore detention policy.
"It is time that we called an amnesty. People who have been here for 10 years and have passed the character tests and all these other things should be granted permanent visas," she said.
This month (19 July) marks the 10th anniversary since the then- and prevented from settling in Australia.

Scholars at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law estimate the cost of the offshore processing policy in the six years to 2020 to be $8.3 billion. The centre found the annual cost of detaining a single asylum seeker in Papua New Guinea or Nauru amounted to $3.4 million.

Walking 'for freedom'

Para said the idea for the 1,000km walk came to him as he reflected on the response to a four-day sit-in protest at Parliament House in Canberra earlier this year in March.
"I feel we were seen, but we were not heard," he said.
"Every single politician, they were passing by, but they didn't come and talk to us."

He said that reaction prompted him to launch the Union of Australian Refugees group and take on the walking project to draw attention to the plight of his family and those on bridging visas.

A man holds a map showing the path of his walk from Ballarat to Sydney.

Neil Para says he aims to tally up 1,000 kilometres of walking and reach Sydney by early September. Source: Supplied / Peter Kervarec

Para said his concern is mainly for his daughters, who have experienced most of their childhood in Australia, including the youngest 10-year-old Nive who was born here.
"I really welcome the message from Minister [Andrew] Giles on TPV and SHEV visa holders, but he must also think about Bridging Visa E holders and us," he said.
"They [bridging visa holders with work rights] are working and paying taxes, and we [my wife and I] are working voluntarily. Let us have certainty too."
Starting from Ballarat on 1 August, Para said he aims to cover 30km a day by foot to reach Prime Minister Anthony Albanese's office in Sydney within a month. There, he will present a petition of 11,000 signatures, calling for "fairness for refugees who’ve lived here in Australia for more than a decade".

Supporting him logistically will be groups like Ballarat Rural Australians for Refugees and others in the network.

"I have a big team between Ballarat and Sydney supporting this work, organising the logistics. Without their help, I definitely can't make it. They are our supporters. They are our angels. Without them, we can't do it," Para said.
He said the walk will take a lot of mental and physical strength - and he's ready for it.
"After 11 years, this is intolerable. My family and I want to start planning for the future. We want freedom," he said.
"If I can make something for my family, if I can make something for my community without relying on others ... on my own. That's my freedom."
In a statement provided by the Department of Home Affairs after the initial publication of this article, the department said it did not comment on individual cases.
Data released by the department on 13 July shows it has approved 2,740 applications from asylum seekers and refugees who pursued the permanent pathway option announced in February, while 15,676 claims are still being processed.

Of the 32,045 individuals in the Legacy Caseload group, 7,725 have had their cases closed either through refusal, cancellation or expiration.

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