What motivated you to launch Australia for UNHCR 20 years ago?

I have had a number of varied jobs – lawyer, diplomat and trade union leader – but all with a consistent focus on themes around displacement, gender equity and human rights, so when I spotted a small ad in the paper for someone to set up a new private sector organisation for UNHCR in Australia I jumped at the chance. I loved the opportunity to help connect Australians to this important global cause. If you have the opportunity to make a positive difference then you should. That has been a guiding philosophy for me.

What did you anticipate the work would be like? Has it differed from your expectations?

The debate around asylum seekers has become much more virulent and xenophobia is now a concern globally. On a positive note, there has been real interest in people wanting to understand more about global displacement. We now have 90,000 active supporters, so I am very proud of how we have engaged and mobilised Australians in this wider cause.

What have been some of your greatest support systems?

There are so many to thank from my amazing UNHCR colleagues to our Chair, Michael Dwyer AM, and Board – all leaders in their field who are passionate about our cause. I also have a great team led by our Deputy National Director Trudi Mitchell and Strategic Development Director Debra O’Neill. Also none of our work would be possible without our donors who have raised more than $300 million for UNHCR’s humanitarian operations. My family have also supported me every step of the way. My mother was one of our first volunteers! My husband Peter and our children are also keen supporters and fundraisers for Australia for UNHCR.

National Director Naomi Steer with Sister Angelique Namaika who won the Nansen Refugee Award for her work helping the survivors of displacement and abuse by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Democratic Republic of the Congo. © Australia for UNHCR

“If you have the opportunity to make a positive difference then you should. That has been a guiding philosophy for me.”

Australia for UNHCR National Director, Naomi Steer, on a visit to the early childhood care
and development (ECCD) facilities at the Jewi refugee camp in Ethiopia’s Gambella region. © Australia for UNHCR

What are some of the greatest things you’ve learned from the role and your field visits?

Two key things stand out – the resourcefulness and resilience of refugees and the dedication of UNHCR staff. While everyone needs food, water and shelter, we also need things that give us hope and meaning – education, jobs and connectivity to our wider community. These are all areas Australia for UNHCR has focused our support on for the last two decades. What makes my role so special and the work we do so fulfilling, is having that connection to refugees, listening to what they want, recognising their potential, then helping give them the resources to achieve that potential.

What are some of the projects you feel proudest of?

With our donor support, Australia for UNHCR has supported UNHCR in every major emergency. We were the largest private sector donor for the Horn of Africa famine relief operations in 2011 and more recently for the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. We have supported Syrian refugees for over nine years now. We have helped those affected by natural disasters, from the Boxing Day Tsunami and the earthquake in Nepal to storms and floods in Africa and Asia. We have also employed hundreds of refugees over the years in our various fundraising activities. Who better to be our advocates than refugees themselves?

What are your hopes for the next 20 years at Australia for UNHCR?

When Australia for UNCHR was founded, we faced a single major crisis in a given year and there were approximately 20 million people displaced in the world. We are now dealing with many concurrent crises and more than 79 million people displaced. At the same time, we’ve faced a challenging global environment and devastating bushfires at home, however we’ve seen an uplift in support for refugees. There are a number of reasons for this, but at its heart I see a greater compassion and empathy for refugees. We hope to build on this and help create not only a more welcoming and humanitarian response to asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia but recognition of the contribution refugees make if given the resources and opportunity to do so.


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