Refugee advocate Graeme Swincer's efforts recognised

Graeme Swincer of Faulconbridge is a former agricultural scientist and development worker who, in his retirement, has become a refugee advocate. Mr Swincer hopes his medal brings more recognition to asylum seeker policy  the rights and treatment of refugees.
Graeme Swincer of Faulconbridge is a former agricultural scientist and development worker who, in his retirement, has become a refugee advocate. Mr Swincer hopes his medal brings more recognition to asylum seeker policy the rights and treatment of refugees.

He's been recognised as one of our nation's outstanding achievers but he almost didn't accept the honour.

Dr Graeme Douglas Swincer, 73, of Faulconbridge, was recognised in the Australia Day honours for more than four decades of service to the community through humanitarian support organisations - activities that he says now involve being a "law breaker".

"I'm very honoured," he told the Gazette of being awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM).

"When I heard I was in shock, it was disbelief, and initially I thought I can't accept this from a government that is doing these things ... these barbaric policies and collective murder.

"But [wife] Sue is very wise, and she said, you can bring attention to the cause, to asylum seekers."

It all started in Malang, Indonesia, in 1971, when Dr Swincer found children who had been living in cardboard boxes in a cemetery close to his home, were starting to come to his kitchen for food. First a trickle and then a flood. He approached World Vision and started a pilot project to help out the community. Two years later they were looking after 350 children and the children were starting to go to school.

It changed the way World Vision operated.

"It was the first World Vision sponsored project in the community and now that's how it's all run. Up until then all World Vision's work had been in refugee camps and group homes," the former agricultural scientist and development worker said. "And it all started at our kitchen table in 1972," added Sue Swincer.

The pair moved to the Mountains 20 years ago, after long stints working in development overseas as a consultant and trainer with World Vision, Australian Baptist World Aid and the Salvation Army. They had plans for a quiet retirement, but four years ago their daughter suggested Mum and Dad visit Villawood Detention Centre in Western Sydney to talk to some of the refugees.

"She had been a visitor there and we went because we were fluent in Indonesian after living there for 10 years," he said.

The visit changed their lives. Last year their "holiday" was a road trip to visit "50 or so of our friends" who had been moved from Villawood to detention centres around Australia from Darwin in the Northern Territory to Curtin and Yongahill in Western Australia.

Dr Swincer, as part of a team from the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group, has helped up to 100 refugees write lengthy submissions - "law breaking because it is only supposed to completed by recognised immigration specialists".

Because many asylum seekers spend years waiting for assessment in Indonesia, many have become fluent in the language and rely on his help with translations and the submissions. He even enrolled in an online course out of Trinity College in Dublin, a course which specialises in asylum seeker law to access scholarly sources to help advance their cause.

He admits it's become a full-time, albeit unpaid, job.

The Swincers regularly have asylum seekers living at their four-bedroom home that backs onto bush. At the moment two men - one from Bangladesh and another from Afghanistan, reside with them "and both are still fighting desperately not to be sent back to their death", he said.

Dr Swincer grew up on a sheep farm in Victor Harbor in South Australia where his parents were involved with helping future indigenous leaders, including Lowitja O'Donoghue.

His favourite quote is one attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and also quoted by Mandela, Martin Luther King and Gandhi - 'When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty'.

But he remains cautiously optimistic about the future.

"We never imagined that small beginning four years ago would lead to this," he said. "It will take several years and others will have to carry this on."

Details: www.bmrsg.org.au.