July 2017

Unpacking Minister’s “lodge or leave” policy

“Fake refugees” who have “refused to apply” for a visa? Sister Sarah Puls answers some common questions arising from Minister Dutton’s “lodge or leave” policy announcement.

BY Sarah Puls SGS

In late May, Australia’s Minister for Immigration and Border Protection made an announcement regarding a group of people – asylum seekers – whom the Government and the Immigration Department refer to as “the legacy caseload”. Minister Dutton’s statement surprised even those of us who have grown most accustomed to the vilifying and demeaning rhetoric of the Immigration Department.

In my work with the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) I’ve become somewhat desensitised to tax-payer-funded workers at the Immigration Department referring to people by their boat ID instead of their name. I’ve gotten used to explaining to people who come to us for help that the long delay in being allowed to simply tell their story is not a sign that there is something wrong with them personally. “It’s not you”, I say. “This is how our Immigration Department treats everyone in your situation.”

It takes a lot for the words of anyone connected to the Immigration Department to shock me because I have witnessed the ever-increasing dehumanisation that is now ‘normal’. Rather than referring to people as people, I’ve grown used to the Department’s use of detached descriptors, such as “detainee”, “transferee”, “client” or “IMA” (Illegal Maritime Arrival).

But even I was stunned by the cruelty and disingenuousness of Minister Dutton’s statement, accusing those people who have come to Australia seeking safety from persecution, and who have not yet lodged their application for protection, as being “fake refugees” who have “refused to apply” for a visa.

The words of the Minister were deeply wrong in their characterisation of a group of people whom I have had the pleasure of meeting. So I want to take an opportunity to answer some common questions arising from the Minister’s announcement.

What is the “legacy caseload”?

The term “legacy caseload” refers to the group of women, men and families who came to Australia by sea between August 2012 and January 2014. The introduction of the “No Advantage” policies under the Labor Government in August 2012 ‘put a freeze’ on these people applying for any kind of visa which would allow them to be recognised as refugees.

This group of people came to Australia with stories of persecution, death, conflict and survival, but rather than listening to their stories and assessing whether or not they met the technical definition of a refugee, the Australian Government said, in short, “wait”. These people desperately wanted to explain to the Australian government and the community why they need our protection, but instead of listening, our government said “wait”. And so they waited.

In my experience, there is no person more eager to do what the Australian Government asks than someone who has come to this country fleeing violence and hoping to build a safe future for themselves and their families here. When I first began working with this group, I remember marvelling at their capacity to contain their frustration and hold onto hope as they kept being told “wait”, without knowing when the waiting might end.

But 2012-2014 is ages ago! Why the delay?

At first, the wait was in the form of “everyone has to wait for an invitation to apply”. The waiting was for all people who arrived by boat after August 2012; it was indefinite, and no one really knew what would happen when the waiting ended. In April 2015 legislation was finally passed, allowing these people to make their claims as refugees and begin to move forward. But there were two significant catches.

The first catch was that these people would not be granted permanent visas if found to be refugees. Instead, they would be given one of two temporary visas, allowing them to stay for three or five years, and with a range of other limitations.

The second catch was that, instead of accessing the standard application structures, these people would have their application ‘processed’ through a new “fast-track” processing system.

People began receiving letters inviting them to make applications in mid-2015, but by this time the funding for legal support for this group had been cut. So those being ‘invited to apply’ were left with a cruel choice between applying without legal assistance, or joining a waiting list for one of the free legal services (like RACS – the Refugee Advice and Casework Service) who were trying valiantly to work their way through the large numbers of applications using only donations, grants, and a whole lot of goodwill and determined volunteers.

Because the letters were sent out in groups, and not necessarily in the order people arrived, some people waited over five years just to be permitted to make any application at all. They waited all that time, holding onto their stories of trauma and survival, to finally be given the opportunity to have someone from the Australian Government try to understand why they had risked their lives to seek safety.

During this long period of waiting, many of these people were accessing our services at JRS. We had many, many conversations with people about how hard it is to wait, and how there is nothing we, or they, could do to prompt the invitation to come. In all those conversations with all those individuals and families, every single one of them was longing to apply, to be heard, and to have someone in authority make the assessment about their refugee status according to Australian law. To suggest that those who have not lodged an application are avoiding that assessment is absurd.

What is the October 1 deadline?

The Immigration Department recently announced that all of those people who have not yet lodged their application, mostly because they have been waiting for legal help, are to apply by October 1 or they will lose the chance to apply at all. When announcing this deadline, the Minister also said that these people will be barred from re-entering Australia and cut off from any financial assistance they have been receiving. But surely these conditions are less of a motivating factor than the threat of being returned to a country where a person fears persecution and death?

My experience in working with this group of people, and our experience of people coming to us requesting urgent legal assistance, makes me confident that they are not motivated by the creative cruelty of the Australian Government, so much as by the same fears, and the same hopes for safety that originally prompted them to board boats to make a dangerous journey looking for security.

So what’s happened with those whose claims are already assessed?

For people who arrived by boat, those two ‘catches’ take a nasty turn.

Being assessed under the “fast-track” system leaves people with little confidence that their claims have been properly heard. For those who receive a negative assessment (i.e. a decision that they are not a person who is a refugee according to Australian law) this is distressing because the ‘review’ system generally is a review of papers only, with the person unable to raise any concerns about the initial decision.

Fortunately, negative decisions are the minority with most people being found to be refugees according to law, and therefore entitled to a visa to stay safely in Australia. But, if you arrived in Australia after August 2012, and you didn’t have a visa when you arrived, you can only be granted a temporary visa.

Hang on, didn’t we have Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) before?

Yes, and they were terrible for those who were given them… but we’re doing it again.

Under the current system, a person can apply for either a three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a five-year Safe Haven Entry Visa (SHEV). There are differences but they share a cruel factor: they bar the holder from applying for their family to come to Australia to join them.

Living in limbo…

The sad reality for people who are granted a TPV or SHEV is that they have been recognised as a refugee, and Australia has accepted that we need to allow them to stay so they can be safe, but we don’t allow these people to get on with their lives and become permanent, equal members of our community.

At JRS we have met many of these people and we struggle to know how to respond. When someone is granted a Permanent Protection Visa we might say “Congratulations!” or “Welcome!” but when it’s only a temporary visa it is entirely different.

On one hand, it’s great that their story has been heard and they have been formally recognised as a refugee, but it doesn’t really feel right to say “welcome!” to someone who is only welcome for a short time and then has to again prove whether or not they should stay. And it certainly doesn’t feel right to say “congratulations” to someone who is facing life without their spouse or their children for the next three years, or five years, and potentially for a life time.

What can I do?

You can help to provide legal assistance to those affected by the October 1 deadline by donating to lawyers such as RACS and Refugee Legal. They get enormous value for every dollar donated and they need support now.

You can advocate for the abolition of TPVs and SHEVs, and demand that those people who are recognised as refugees be given access to a safe and stable future, including access to permanent visas and a pathway to citizenship for themselves and their families. You can tell your local MP that you think temporary visas are cruel and ask them what they and their party are planning to do to assist those who have been granted them.

And you can donate to JRS to support our efforts to ensure people are able to live with dignity by providing casework and emergency relief at the moments when they are most vulnerable.

Sarah Puls

Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls has worked as a social worker with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Western Sydney and more recently as a spiritual care practitioner and clinical pastoral supervisor at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

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