From Bhutan to Blacktown, Om Dhungel seeks to change the way we look at refugees

By Harrison Vesey

Australia is wasting money and risking its international reputation with the unfolding human rights disaster on Manus Island, according to a Blacktown refugee advocate.

Om Dhungel spent six years in a Nepalese refugee camp after fleeing Bhutan in 1992.

He reached Australia in 1998 and continued his successful career in telecommunications for a decade before pursuing his passion to work in the social sector.

Mr Dhungel said he “fully understands” why Australia can’t have an open-door policy for refugees, but also spoke against offshore detention.

More than 600 asylum seekers have been peacefully protesting on Manus Island after the Australian government shut down its processing centre and cut off water, food and electricity.

Chifley MP Ed Husic has labelled Immigration Minister Peter Dutton “woefully incompetent” for his management of “indefinite” offshore processing.

He called on the government to work with the Papua New Guinean authorities to ensure the safety of the refugees.

Mr Dhungel said Australia is losing international goodwill with each day the crisis drags on, and that offshore processing in general was an “unacceptable” use of public money.

“On an average, I think we spend over half a million dollars per person to keep them offshore. Now we could actually send them to Harvard, bring them back and we’d have a well-educated associate,” he said.

“It sounds like a joke but it’s real. Why couldn’t we spend that $500,000 per person differently?”

Mr Dhungel also advocates for a different approach once refugees are resettled in Australia.

He believes the government and service providers need to operate from a strength-based approach and empower people to become independent sooner, rather than the traditional needs-based approach.

“When we look at refugees, we feel sorry for them. We empathise and we help them,” Mr Dhungel said.

“How can you then start redefining them with their strengths? How do we move from helping that person to say, ‘Hey, what can you do?’ There’s a need to redefine refugees and that’s one of my guiding principles.”

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