A newly-formed refugee and asylum seeker-led organisation — Justice for Refugees — coordinated national protests on September 14 to demand an end to the discrimination they face under Australia's onshore asylum seeker policy.
The campaign is focused on achieving justice for refugees who were refused protection under the unjust 'fast track' process; those on temporary protection or short-term bridging visas; those still awaiting the outcome of citizenship applications or unable to apply for a spouse visa; and children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents that have no right to citizenship.
They are calling for a fair process that includes Permanent Protection Visas and the granting of family reunion rights.
These requests are not exceptional nor are they unreasonable. They are what are required for people to be able to live with hope and dignity.
Most people are familiar with the violence of immigration prisons, euphemistically referred to as “detention centres”. But what many might not be able to see is how the psychological prisons that temporary visas enforce can be equally lethal.
Bridging visas and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) are prisons without walls.
Countless young people have died by suicide while subject to regimes of temporary visas and prolonged uncertainty. Under these policies, there has been a deliberate weaponisation of mental health with the intention of manufacturing conditions that are so intolerable that people self-deport.
The “fast track” process was introduced in 2014 for people who arrived by boat between August 2012 and January 2014. They were only granted temporary protection.
This process is neither fast nor fair, and has been criticised by legal and human rights experts for placing people at risk of refoulement. It was this flawed assessment process that led to the Biloela family of Priya, Nades (both of Tamils descent) and their two Australian-born daughters being refused protection.
Under the current asylum seeker policy, many refugees are on temporary protection or short-term bridging visas even after many years of living and working in Australia.
Moreover, the three-year TPVs or five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) do not allow for family reunion and those who are married to Australians are unable to apply for a spouse visa. Children born in Australia to asylum seeker parents have no right to citizenship.
Further, they place people in an ongoing cycle of impermanency. The only way out is by meeting the requirements of the SHEV, which include working or studying in a designated “regional area” without receiving income support for at least three and a half of the five years. This means relocating people away from their community, support networks and services they have relied on for several years.
If this requirement is met, people may be eligible for other visas that could lead to permanency, however they would have to meet the English language and other requirements of those visa types.
Many refugees are also being forced to wait years to hear the outcome of citizenship applications or even for the right to apply for citizenship.
In the best case scenario, by the time people could qualify for citizenship and family reunion, young children would be in their teens. This represents a childhood lost and the time taken from people cannot be returned.
Many TPV holders attended the rally, with some speaking about their experiences. Many more have concerns about speaking out, fearing this may impact on their immigration status.
The Justice for Refugees website states: “Our reason for fleeing was seeking asylum and safety for our children’s future, not our own … We have a duty to keep them safe and the Australian government has deprived us of even this right.”
For those who have been denied protection visas through this unfair process the stakes are even higher.
Increasingly, people who have received a negative decision on their visa application and exhausted appeal avenues are being “starved out”. This can include being denied work rights and ending Status Resolution Support Services payments, which means they are forced to rely on charity or face destitution.
There is also the risk of being whisked away in the middle of the night by Border Force agents and detained, just like the Biloela family.
[Michelle Bui is an activist with Refugee Rights Action Network WA (RRAN WA). Janet Parker is a co-convenor of Freo RRAN and a member of the Socialist Alliance.]