Refugee myths

Challenging refugee myths

28 November 2017
Rethinking views on immigration

Professor Mary Crock speaks about the work she is doing that is helping society to rethink its views on immigration, citizenship and refugee law in Australia and around the world.

Mary Crock meeting the locals in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Mary meeting the locals in Gaziantep, Turkey.

What is your background, and why did you decide to join the University?

I was born in Perth and spent the first four years of my life in London where my father was studying to become an ophthalmologist. I grew up in Melbourne, where he became Australia’s first Professor of Ophthalmology. I attended the Melbourne Law School for my undergraduate studies in law with honours and arts with honours in French and fine arts. I went into legal practice after law school, before taking a job as a judge’s associate in the Victorian Supreme Court. I then helped establish Victoria’s first community legal service, specialising in immigration and refugee law. It continues to this day as Refugee Legal in Melbourne.

I received my PhD in 1994, completed in the years during which I had our three children. My doctorate focused on issues central to my practical work. In 1993, we moved to Sydney when my husband Ron McCallum (Emeritus Professor at the University) was appointed to a chair in labour law. In 1995, I started teaching immigration law at the University, a subject which was not being taught at that time but which students had rated as the one they would most like to see introduced into the curriculum.

How did you get interested in migration, citizenship and refugee law?

In many respects, the seeds were sown at university when I volunteered as an English language teacher for refugees from Vietnam. I also participated in the 1982 Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition. We won the Australian round and went on to debate in the finals in Washington DC. The topic of the moot was refugee law, inspired no doubt by post-Vietnam events.

Later, I became particularly interested in migration law while working at the Victorian Supreme Court, encouraged by a barrister who commented on how little attention had been paid to migration as an area of law. I took advantage of the Supreme Court library to read every decision published by the High Court on migration law. In 1986 there were little more than 50 decisions, so it was an achievable exercise.

The subject came to dominate my life after we established the Victorian Immigration Advice and Rights Centre in 1989 – the same year as the first boats began arriving from Cambodia. As they say, the rest is history.

Nakivale Refugee Settlement Uganda

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda.

What have you examined recently?

I have just completed phase one of a project on refugees with disabilities that is generating a lot of discussion. Importantly, we have exploded the myth that refugees injured or who otherwise have a disability don’t travel. They do. And in great numbers.

Why do you think it’s important to consistently challenge what has been done previously?

My research constantly reminds me about the importance of keeping an open mind and being prepared to challenge preconceptions. In some ways, it’s the very essence of what I teach in public law, because I am encouraging students to ask of government: can you do that to me? It is profoundly counterintuitive to most of us to think that we should question, rather than blindly follow the law.

What are your interests outside of the classroom?

I have many interests outside the classroom, as reflected in my wonderfully diverse children. One is a professional surfer, another a classical composer and the third a budding environmental lawyer who speaks fluent Mandarin and loves to drag me off to exotic and life-threatening locations. Actually, all three children seem to do that to me. Although it’s not something I can share with my husband Ron (because he is blind), my other passion is art – I paint portraits. I’ve had a piece accepted for the Law Society’s Just Art competition. My painting was entitled The Big Issue and tackles homelessness. I’ve also made a portrait of our former dean, Professor Gillian Triggs, for the Moran Portrait Prize.

Where are your favourite places to visit?

Besides family visits, I love the high country. I used to do a lot of hiking, camping and snow caving in my youth. I do love the calm and majesty of mountains, especially the Australian Alps.

If you could choose to do anything for a day to follow your passion, what would it be and why?

Given the frustrations I experience in trying to bridge the gap between what’s in my head and what goes onto a fresh canvas, I would love a day at a painting class, preferably on the left bank of the Seine in Paris, sitting at the feet of a little bearded man with a beret tipped jauntily to one side. Coffee and croissants for morning tea, of course. Why? Because the best learning is done with the ‘fun principle’ applied.