Federal immigration minister Peter Dutton has come up with a new act of cruelty against asylum seekers: he is trying to force people now in Australia back to danger in Nauru and Manus Island.
Dutton has invented a new class of visa — the final departure bridging E-visa — which cuts income support from asylum seekers already living in the community. They have been given six months to arrange to either go back to their home countries or be sent back to offshore detention.
As if that were not bad enough, asylum seekers targeted with final departure visas will also lose income support of about $200 a fortnight. They have been sent a letter from the immigration department stating: “You will be expected to support yourself in the community until departing Australia.” They are also being denied government-funded housing.
This is the federal government’s latest cruel effort to deport asylum seekers who had been evacuated from Manus Island and Nauru to Australia for medical treatment.
Its last attempt, early last year, was countered by a diverse #Let Them Stay movement across workplaces, churches, schools, music festivals and sporting matches. It began when doctors at Brisbane’s Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital refused to discharge baby Asha, as she became known, who the government wanted to send back to Nauru. A vigil outside the hospital lasted for several days and nights. It only ended when the government backed down and allowed baby Asha, her mother and the rest of the cohort to stay in community detention.
About 400 people are facing Dutton’s new deportation effort. Some have been living in Australia for years after being transferred here for medical reasons. The group includes families with children in school and babies born here. It includes women who have been sexually assaulted on Manus Island and children who were beaten up to the point they needed to be evacuated for urgent medical attention.
One hundred people are expected to find work and a new a place to live immediately. If they cannot, they will be transferred back to Manus Island, Nauru or their country of origin.
The federal government has already transferred a 58-year-old Rohingya man back to Manus Island. This comes in the wake of massacres of stateless Rohingya in the Rakhine region by the Myanmar army last month, including shooting unarmed children. This, yet again, shows why people are seeking asylum and should not be forced back to the country from which they fled.
Once again, we need to stand up to Dutton’s cruelty with another wave of solidarity. It’s heartening to see that this is happening and that refugee organisations are helping people find accommodation, food and work.
Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre has launched a fundraising drive for accommodation and is calling on people to join the Let Them Stay campaign. Other refugee rights organisations are helping out.
Walid, a man detained in Manus Island, has donated to ASRC’s appeal, writing: “I want to share with my mates who need it the most … Much love from Manus.”
Legal support is being given, something that prompted Dutton to describe human rights lawyers who are working pro-bono to stop people from being deported, as “un-Australian”.
The sanctuary movement offering accommodation to anyone left homeless is gaining momentum, with churches leading the way. Significantly, it is stating it will oppose the government deporting people back to danger.
The crisis will come to a head soon. Asylum seekers have been given six months to take up the final departure visa and October 31 is the deadline for several thousand people who have tried to navigate complex legal applications for permanent protection.
In the US and Europe, sanctuary activists are not just offering housing, they are also preparing whole communities to resist deportation attempts.
During the John Howard years, the sanctuary movement was strong. Mass rallies and meetings on campuses led to several universities holding student referendums on the issue. It helped broaden the discussion around refugee rights and government responsibilities towards them.
An underground network was established to allow those people who had managed to escape from detention centres to stay undetected and safe. Some are now still living in Australia and have permanent protection.
As more people look for ways to volunteer and donate, we need to extend the sanctuary campaign as part of this new phase in the struggle to force the government to back down and support asylum seekers.
[Zebedee Parkes is a refugee rights activist and film-maker. He is a member of the Socialist Alliance.]