Danijel Malbasa, a former Yugoslav refugee who is now a powerful advocate, writer and lawyer, is the inaugural winner of the Les Murray Award for Refugee Recognition.

The $10,000 award recognises an outstanding former refugee who is raising awareness of the plight of forcibly displaced people, and is named after beloved sports commentator Les Murray AM, himself a former refugee from Hungary.

The award was judged by former Ugandan refugee Ann Odong, SBS Director of Language and Audio Content David Hua, UNHCR Multi-Country Representative Adrian Edwards, and Australia for UNHCR Deputy Chair Kate Dundas.

“Danijel Malbasa arrived in Australia as a 12-year-old, malnourished, traumatised and in need of protection,” said Kate.

“He has spent many years examining what it means to be a refugee as well as helping others who have been forced to flee their homes. Danijel has a great deal to teach us – about empathy and prejudice and resilience and the power of our words. Danijel is an incredibly worthy recipient of the Les Murray Award and I hope it gives him a platform to tell his story to a larger audience.”

Danijel says he is thrilled to win the award after growing up with soccer-obsessed brothers who woke up in the early hours of the morning to watch English Premier League games commentated by Les Murray.

Danijel Malbasa, a former Yugoslav refugee who is now a powerful advocate, writer and lawyer, is the inaugural winner of the Les Murray Award for Refugee Recognition. © Supplied

“UNHCR was there for us. They really saved my life.”

Danjiel’s first week in Australia, April 1999. © Supplied

“I feel very honoured to have won this award. It’s an amazing time for us former refugees to raise their voices,” he says.

Danijel was born in a country that no longer exists. The Yugoslav Wars upended his family’s idyllic life in Croatia, and Danijel spent six years of his childhood in camps for Internally Displaced People (IDP) and refugees, supporting his mother and three siblings after his father was killed by a landmine.

“In 1995, we fled our enclave in Croatia and were housed in a refugee camp in Serbia on the outskirts of Kosovo,” said Danijel. “It was a large sewing factory. They removed the sewing machines and put down mattresses on the floor. That’s where we lived for about five years with 800 people sharing one bathroom, one hot plate. It was a really difficult situation.”

“UNHCR was there for us. They really saved my life. They saved our lives, for all my family members, by giving us the opportunity to find asylum through the UNHCR system and the Refugee Convention, and the opportunity to come to Adelaide.”

In 1999, Danijel’s family received a humanitarian visa and resettled in Adelaide. Danijel was 12 and didn’t speak any English. Despite facing many challenges, including a backlash against Serbians at the time, Danijel says he and his siblings thrived in their new country.

“Anybody can be a refugee and it’s really just a matter of circumstances”

Today, Danijel is an employment and industrial relations lawyer. Outside his day job, he is a passionate advocate for refugees. His writing has appeared in The Guardian and he is Deputy Chair of the Forcibly Displaced People Network – Australia’s first LGBTIQ+ refugee network. He also sits on the steering committee of the National Refugee-led Advocacy and Advisory Group. 

Danijel volunteers as a migration agent with Refugee Legal, where he helps asylum seekers apply for Temporary Protection Visas. He is the only volunteer who is a former refugee, helping him build trust with his clients.

With the war in Ukraine escalating, Danijel is urging Australians to support the millions of refugees seeking safety – not just in Europe, but around the world.

“Anybody can be a refugee and it’s really just a matter of circumstances,” he says. “I’m very happy that countries like Moldova and Slovakia and Poland and Hungary are receiving refugees with open arms. But at the same time, we also have to acknowledge that many Syrians were pepper-sprayed and beaten. Barbed wire fences were erected all over Europe to keep them out. It’s a difficult discussion to have, but we have to ask ourselves, why is that? Why is it that we can’t treat refugees with decency and fairness, regardless of their origin, regardless of their skin colour?”

Danijel will appear at our World Refugee Day event on Thursday 16 June 2022.

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Danjiel with his mum and brother in a refugee camp in Serbia, 1998. © Supplied

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