Fighting for the rights of asylum seekers in Australia
Sarah Dale’s day job is fighting for the rights of others at the Refugee Advice and Casework Service where she helps hundreds of people who are facing uncertain futures.
Bachelor of Laws, 2011
Centre Director and Principal Solicitor, Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS)
Asked what she considers the biggest achievement of her career, solicitor Sarah Dale describes the situation facing more than 20 unaccompanied teenagers seeking asylum on Christmas Island in 2014.
“For 18 months, they’d wake up every morning, dreading that this would be the day they’d be transferred to Nauru,” she says.
“We were told by very senior lawyers and senior counsel that there was nothing we could do, but we decided there had to be an alternative.”
Dale’s organisation, Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), made a complaint to the United Nations — a bold move by the then 27-year-old, who’d been admitted as a lawyer just two years earlier.
But Dale was no stranger to tough cases, having spent her graduate years representing juvenile offenders.
In the end, the teens on Christmas Island were released into the community to start the process of applying for protection in Australia.
“We’ll never know exactly why, but I think it was a mix of public and legal advocacy,” says Dale.
I love that the law is such an integral part of people’s lives: it’s a protection mechanism, there to make sure we all have access to what we’re entitled to.
As for her biggest challenge, Dale points to 2017, when it was announced that asylum seekers who had arrived by boat after August 2012 had just five months left to lodge a visa application.
Many had only recently been invited to apply, and the small team at RACS already had a waitlist in the thousands. It was an intense but rewarding five months for Dale, who was charged with coordinating the legal team.
“We had to rally together with many of Sydney’s top-tier law firms; we had volunteers by the hundreds,” she says.
“Remarkably, despite the fact there were close to 28,000 people needing help, only 77 missed the deadline.”
Sarah Dale is the 2019 recipient of the UTS Alumni Award for Excellence in Law.
ROLE MODELS: “The team at RACS. Everyone comes here every day to fight for the rights of others. To me, that’s incredibly inspiring.”
SECRET SKILL: Switching off. “My husband will say to me, ‘You’ve had an enormous day at work, you don’t need to make a three-hour curry.’ But I do need that: it returns me to the normal world.”
Q&A: Sarah on leading positive change
What drew you to law?
“I’m not a person who loves contracts or gets a kick out of jurisprudence. But I love that the law is such an integral part of people’s lives: it’s a protection mechanism, there to make sure we all have access to what we’re entitled to.”
What advice do you have for law graduates?
“Being able to switch off is such an important part of the job. The legal community is getting better at addressing mental health and burnout but we’re not there yet. If we can all start recognising small things we can do to give ourselves a break, then we’re going to be a healthier profession.”
How do you handle the emotional impact of your work?
“It can be very hard. Having an incredible family to go home to is certainly a blessing, but it’s also a reminder of how lucky I am and what the people I work with don’t have.”