30 January 2023
Interview #6 – Genevieve Howe
Genevieve is a solicitor at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS). Genevieve co-runs the RACS Women at Risk project – which focuses on assisting people seeking asylum who identify as women and who have experienced or fear they will experience gender-based or domestic and family violence. She also provides legal assistance at the community outreach clinics in Auburn and Parramatta, and assists in RACS’ new project dedicated to helping clients who are seeking asylum due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.
Genevieve joined RACS in 2019 after working in Nauru, where she represented people seeking asylum at the Nauru Refugee Status Review Tribunal.
Genevieve spoke to Kaylee Neil about being a student volunteer at RACS and coming back as a solicitor, why she fell in love with the organisation, and how no two days are the ever the same.
KAYLEE: Could you tell me about the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS) and the services you provide?
GEN: RACS is a small Community Legal Centre (CLC) based in Randwick NSW. We provide legal assistance and legal advice to refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. Our clients are people who have come to Australia fearing serious harm or persecution if they were to return to their home country. We assist them through the process of applying for a protection visa and the many steps involved in that process. For some clients, we provide ongoing representation through the process and for others just advice along the way.
KAYLEE: How did you come to work with RACS?
GEN: I always knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian space. After studying law at university, that passion channelled more specifically into refugee law. During my last year of university, I started volunteering at RACS one day a week. After a little bit of time here as a volunteer, I just fell in love with the work here, and in love with the people.
While staffing changes, there’s always going to be a group of very dedicated and passionate people working at RACS – it just attracts people like that. I left RACS once I got my first job after university, but came back here as a solicitor in September 2019. It’s been great to be back. I always knew I wanted to make my way back here.
KAYLEE: Why did you leave RACS and how did you come back?
GEN: It was hard – I didn’t want to leave RACS. I wanted to volunteer forever if I could! But I knew I had to take a job opportunity that I had after university. Whenever roles would come up at RACS, or hearing from old colleagues that they were looking to fill more roles, I would always keep my ear to the ground and apply for those opportunities when they came up. September 2019 was the right place and right time for me to come back to RACS.
KAYLEE: What does a typical day of work look like for you?
GEN: It’s very varied, you won’t be doing the same thing any one day at RACS, which is part of what I love – the variety of the work, the variety of the clients you assist, and the variety of the problems that they present to you. You’ll be helping a different client with a different problem every single day. A lot of it is being on the phone to clients. It might be a new client who has never called RACS before, and they need general information about protection visas and what options are open to them. Or it might be chatting with one of your longer-term clients, who you have ongoing case work for and you need to draft legal submissions for their case. You might be helping a client draft their protection visa statement, which is outlining their fears of harm if they had to go back, and helping them prepare documents that can be provided as evidence to support their claims to the Department of Home Affairs. Or you might be the lawyer to represent a client for their department interview.
KAYLEE: What are some of the challenges you have encountered working at RACS?
GEN: I think one of the biggest ones is the lengthy delays as part of the visa application process. Some clients have been waiting years to have their application assessed by the department, or years waiting for an interview with the department to just have their story heard and have their case assessed. It’s quite hard to feel helpless in that regard, in not being able to speed up the system. Supporting your clients in that limbo period of waiting for the outcome is quite a big challenge.
KAYLEE: What do you enjoy about working at RACS?
GEN: What I love about it is that we’re quite open and collaborative with our work. It’s open to you to take on specific work if you have the capacity. We have team meetings every week, during which we’ll all bring up the new cases that have come up for us. There’s a role called ‘trouble-shooter’, which is when you’re on the main phone lines helping the volunteers each day. A lot of work that comes through trouble-shooter will be new clients, so we bring that new work to the meeting, and we’ll say, “this new client has come up, who has the capacity to take them on and help them with their matter?”
KAYLEE: What advice do you have for young professionals wanting to be involved in community legal centres and pro bono work?
GEN: Probably a lot of people say this – volunteer. I’d say volunteer at a variety of places, if you know you want to be in that general CLC space, but you’re not sure which area of law. You meet great people, you get a taste for the work, and see how it works on the ground. If you’re interested in staying on at that organisation, it really helps to show that you have a knowledge of their systems and the work that they do.