Sudan. Community Support Projects In Darfur
Location icon Australia

“Refugees offer so many strengths to society”

Meet Professor Peter Shergold AC, Australia for UNHCR’s new Chair

How did you begin your journey working with migrants and refugees?

I've had a long career working with migrants. I myself came to Australia as a migrant from England, back in 1972, to take up a job at the University of New South Wales. Over the next decade, I started to work quite a lot with ethnic communities in Australia. I witnessed the remarkable contribution they were making not just through work but culturally and socially. We now take a lot of pride in that multicultural Australia.

I've always recognised the role that migrants, and increasingly refugees, play in Australia. It is important that we have a humanitarian program for refugees and it is important we act with humanitarian intent. Refugees are often suffering the most awful trauma. Despite this, they are incredibly driven to succeed and to bring their entrepreneurial skills to their new home. Refugees offer so many strengths to society. In Australia, the group most likely to derive income from family businesses are those who arrived as refugees. So I hope we as a country, can look at the talents and benefits that refugees bring and support these people.

Can you tell us about your time helping refugees in education?

I recently stepped down as Chancellor of Western Sydney University after 12 years in the job. During my time in that role, we actively promoted ourselves as a university that welcomed refugees and asylum seekers to come and study. The university now has more than 900 students who came to Australia under a humanitarian program or as asylum seekers.

I recently had morning tea with a group of twelve of them who had graduated from the university. And they told amazing stories. All of them are effectively now on the verge of giving back to society: a social worker, a teacher, a nurse, a doctor and so on. These young people now have a sense of civic purpose in Australia. I see that story over and over and over again; if you do provide the opportunities, refugees will take them.

When I stepped down as Chancellor late last year I received a wonderful gift. The university established a $2 million education fund in my name. The fund will allow the university to offer scholarships in perpetuity to refugees and asylum seekers. I think over time it will make a profound difference.

Governor General Of Australia — UNHCR 03
Chair of the Board Peter Shergold (left) and Governor-General, His Excellency General the Honourable David John Hurley AC DSC (Retd). © Australia for UNHCR

What are you hoping to achieve in your new role as Chair?

Australia for UNHCR has contributed so much over more than two decades. It has worked tremendously hard to raise funds to support refugees and displaced people overseas.
Working with the executive management team and the Board, I will make sure we continue the momentous progress we've made.

On one level, it’s of course about raising money, but that's not the only goal. It's also about raising awareness in Australia about the challenges being faced in the world today. It’s about the increasing numbers of people who are being displaced from their countries of origin and need our support.

What do you want people to know about Australia for UNHCR?

I think people need to know, in a very real sense, that every dollar donated counts. I'm always moved when people tell me, “Look, I'd like to contribute $10 or $20 a month, but I know it's not much.” Actually, it's profound, because when we have tens of thousands of people giving a small amount it makes a real difference.

The important thing is that everybody who contributes, whether it's one-off on a regular basis, realises that they are having a positive impact on the world. It is an act of kindness which can have the most beneficial impact amongst millions of people who are doing it tough.

People should also know that UNHCR is a frontline organisation. This is an agency that delivers care, support and assistance to people on the ground and does a good job advocating with governments around the world for those people.

This is our chance as individuals, and collectively as a nation, to contribute to that. We can provide assistance and opportunities to people who have been subject to war, torture, violence and all sorts of trauma, who need help rebuilding their lives.