Temporary protection visas punish refugees
BY SARAH STEPHEN & DANIEL MOYA
Bashir Shamkhi's wife and three children were on the boat intercepted by the HMAS Adelaide on October 7. He knows exactly the desperation and fear which led some to jump overboard when confronted by the warship and the prospect of never finding sanctuary.
Shamkhi, an Iraqi refugee, came to Australia two years ago, also by boat, to escape persecution by the regime of Suddam Hussein. He left his wife and children hiding without any documentation in a room in Jordan, hoping to bring them to Australia once he had reached here safely.
But despite the fact that the UN refugee convention states that signatories "shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened ... enter or are present in their territory without authorisation", Shamkhi has suffered punishment and discrimination because of the way he reached Australia.
He was found to be a refugee, but the Australian government has given him second-class status, granting him only a three-year Temporary Protection Visa.
Shamkhi's visa does not allow him to bring his family to Australia until he is granted permanent residence, which he has to wait three years to apply for. It also restricts him from travelling outside Australia except to return permanently to his country of origin, so he wasn't even able to visit his wife and children.
Desperate to bring his family here, he resorted to people smugglers. When asked why he had taken the risk, Shamkhi responded "What choice do I have?"
The three-year TPV was first introduced by the federal government in October 1999 in response to an increase in onshore refugee arrivals.
It was designed to act as a "deterrent", yet two years later the evidence of numbers would indicate that any minimal deterrence effect has been far outweighed by "push factors" — the terror from which people are escaping and the risks they are prepared to take to find sanctuary.
Since 2000, Australia's annual refugee and humanitarian intake of 12,000 has included up to 4000 people who have been granted a second-class three-year TPV, while the remaining 8000 taken in through offshore resettlement have continued to receive permanent protection visas.
Legislation passed in September has taken this hierarchy of rights a step further. The Australian territories of Ashmore Reef, Christmas and Cartier Islands and the Cocos Islands now no longer constitute part of Australia's "migration zone".
Anyone now arriving on these excised territories — if they're found to be refugees, and the Australian government decides to take them in — will receive ongoing rolling temporary visas. They will never be eligible for a permanent protection visa.
This new category of "successive TPV" refugees will never be allowed to normalise their status in Australia. They will never have access to permanent residence, and with it, equal rights. And they will never be able to have their families join them.
Refugees fleeing Afghanistan and Iraq, who commonly arrive in Australia after having travelled through a range of countries, usually Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia, now referred to as "second movers", also face new obstacles.
They will also only be entitled to successive three-year TPVs, unless the immigration minister decides to use his "non-compellable right" to allow an application for a permanent protection visa. These TPVs will only be granted if all attempts to resettle a refugee in a country other than Australia have been exhausted.
Interviewed on the October 2 ABC Radio National law report, immigration minister Philip Ruddock told interviewer Damien Carrick that the intention of the legislation was precisely to create a category of second-class citizens.
There are now over 5000 TPV refugees in Australia, a number which is steadily rising. Their lives here are unremittingly harsh.
Refugees with permanent visas are eligible for a range of entitlements: access to full employment assistance, free English language tuition, the right to apply to sponsor family members, the full range of social security benefits, Medicare, settlement services such as accommodation, assistance with bond payment, access to Migrant Resource Centres, the right to work, and the right to return to the country if they travel.
But those on TPVs are given much more limited access to entitlements. They are not eligible for employment assistance or free English language tuition. They are not eligible for family reunion or the right to return to Australia if they leave the country.
About all they have is the right to work and have access to Medicare. As far as the government is concerned, they are on their own.
The February 12 Age reported that "TPV refugees deposited in Melbourne from immigration centres as far away as Western Australia's Curtin detention centre are reportedly given nothing but an envelope containing Centrelink, Medicare and bank forms and a tourist map of the city. Often they have to stay in backpacker accommodation or rooming houses and face eviction when they cannot pay the bills."
Liz Curran, executive officer for the Catholic Commission for Justice, Development and Peace, told the Age, "You have to remember that [people on] TPVs have no clothes, no tables, no chairs, no saucepans, that they often have serious health issues, and they've proven that they've come here because of fear of persecution and then been placed in detention centres, they have very high needs."
Figures released earlier this year by the Victorian community services minister, Christine Campbell, show that the federal government has saved about $5 million in Victoria alone through its policy of denying basic services. As a result, church and community groups have been inundated with requests for help, which has forced them to divert funds from other programs.
The federal government has also encouraged states and territories to not assist TPV entrants.
A number of state governments have decided to flout this directive. Queensland, for example, gives TPV holders the same level of assistance as permanent protection visa holders.
The Queensland government has also commissioned a report, released in March, which details the psychological impact on TPV holders of the treatment they receive here.
The report found "The conditions of the TPV ... the prohibition of family reunion and the denial of travel permission have compounded existing torture and trauma symptoms".
"To now not know where their families are or whether they are alive or not has resulted in feelings of deep guilt", the report states. "The prohibition of family reunion under the TPV is a source of immense anxiety."
Portraying "TPV entrants as queue jumpers, illegal immigrants, economic burdens on taxpayers and immoral people ... has also resulted in employers' reluctance to employ TPV entrants as well as verbal persecution of service providers and TPV entrants".
"After showing prospective employers their visa some TPV entrants have been told that they do not have the right to work. Recently increased penalties for the employment of people holding temporary visa categories such as tourist visas has led to the mistaken belief that TPV entrants do not have the right to work."
The report includes the words of one refugee interviewed: "[We are] all living in limbo, [we] can't plan for a long time because our situation [is] not certain. We feel that after three years [we] may be removed. [It is therefore] impossible to plan for a long time."
One man likened it to being in jail, "It is like a prison for us here: we are a little bit safe but still we are not free".
The Queensland government report can be accessed via its web site, <http://www.premiers.qld.gov.au/maq>.