Abbott’s refugee policies: What to expect in the coming year

The government's decision to freeze permanent protection visas will have consequences for many asylum seekers. Photo: Peter Boyl

Refugee rights advocates spent much of this year dreading the election of the Tony Abbott government and its predicted fallout for those seeking protection in Australia. What can they now expect in 2014?

The anticipated attacks have come hard and fast with “Operation Sovereign Borders”: indiscriminate offshore expulsions, collusion with a genocidal regime, reckless deportations after only one interview, military-led border control putting boats in danger, an end to officially reporting boats and their passengers' whereabouts, and concerted moves to abolish any form of permanent protection for anyone.

Now, in response to the Greens and Labor voting down temporary protection visa (TPV) legislation in the Senate, immigration minister Scott Morrison used ministerial powers to cap the maximum number of protection visas that may be granted this financial year at 1650.

This is the exact number of visas that have already been granted since July 1, which means no further visas can be granted until June next year, when the new Senate will begin sitting.

“This is a non-disallowable instrument,” Morrison said on December 2, which means a human rights statement of compatibility does not apply and would not go to a vote. It would remain in place until Labor and the Greens reversed their opposition to TPVs.

“Under no circumstances will this government provide permanent protection visas to people who arrive illegally by boat,” Morrison said.

It means that the more than 33,000 asylum seekers holding restrictive bridging visas or waiting in detention — comprising the Coalition's much maligned “backlog” that formed before the Papua New Guinea deal was implemented in July — will remain in precarious and legally dubious limbo until at least halfway through next year.

About 21,000 asylum seekers on bridging visas will be forced to struggle through poverty; some may be allowed to work, others must depend on overstretched charities. They can be re-detained at any time.

Many are also reporting to refugee support organisations that immigration is refusing to renew their visas, causing them to lose work rights and healthcare access overnight.

Those in onshore detention suffer chronic anxiety, health problems, mental illness and despair due to its prolonged and indefinite nature. Now they also have the fear of rising deportations; many witness others being sent home, or to Nauru or PNG, and live in constant fear of a similar fate.

Morrison's simple bureaucratic gesture — a deliberate backlash against the Senate — has ensured at least seven more months of such suffering. And after all that, temporary protection is “the best” thing any refugee could hope for under the government's plan. It will also affect people who came by plane under student or working visas and then applied for protection.

Morrison also took the extraordinary step of scrapping complementary protection, a provisional measure of protection that the immigration department may grant to people that don't fit the narrow definition of a refugee but would still be at risk of severe harm if subject to repatriation.

It was often a lifeline for women, who flee to escape honour killings, sexual slavery, the death penalty, and genital mutilation.

These tens of thousands of people, no longer able to achieve permanent safety in Australia, will add to the growing humanitarian toll piling up under the Australian government into next year.

Yet new arrivals will undoubtedly also continue. This presents a second challenge for fighters for refugee rights. The Coalition and the navy's media blackout on boat arrivals and “on-water” operational matters, the immigration department's 48-hour “turnaround” objective, and increasingly hasty repatriations and transfers to offshore detention camps means the welfare of new arrivals will be constantly in jeopardy.

This was demonstrated last week when — defying the utter silence of immigration, customs and the navy — Christmas Island resident Gordon Thomson reported via Twitter on December 5 that a boat sank near Dolly Beach on December 2 and its passengers had been camping on the remote beach. Some had walked to a main road and were discovered, while seven were missing in “difficult terrain”, Thomson said. A brief statement from Morrison’s office said the “details of the incident are not clear”.

Four boats arrived over the course of the five day saga.

The public will have to struggle to get the facts — in defiance of Morrison and Abbott's manipulation of reality. This will also mean remaining vigilant in rejecting the Coalition’s characterisation of asylum seekers as “illegal maritime entrants”, despite Morrison’s unfounded claims such as: “People who have entered Australia illegally by boat have illegally entered by boat.”

Court cases set to continue into next year will also have significant consequences for many asylum seekers, such as the case of “stateless” baby boy Farouz, his mother Latifah and family.

It's not exaggerating to call this an escalating humanitarian disaster, or to call Morrison's bid to end hopes for permanent protection for thousands of people an extraordinary violation of human rights.

But the government’s popularity has already nosedived and Abbott’s anti-refugee agenda is already breeding disapproval.

The discontent is growing even faster than under John Howard, discontent which spawned a movement that forced back even his worst efforts.

Next year, campaigners will have to create opportunities to defy and undo the Coalition’s many offensive fronts, and spark a national belief in humane alternatives.

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