On October 21, two days after the anniversary of the sinking of the SIEV-X, shadow minister for immigration Tony Burke announced that he would recommend that the ALP change key aspects of its refugee policy.
The major changes Burke suggested relate to the abolition of the temporary protection visa (TPV) regime, and granting access to Medicare and the right to work to all asylum seekers living in the community while awaiting the outcome of their protection applications.
The reforms were recommended in a report from the ALP's federal social policy caucus committee subcommittee, released on October 10. The subcommittee was commissioned by Burke's office to review TPVs and "bridging visa E" for refugees and asylum seekers. It consulted with a range of organisations working with refugees and drew on the now substantial body of research into the adverse impact and ineffectiveness of current policy.
The report's recommendations are not particularly radical. If implemented, they would go some way towards bringing Australia into line with its international obligations under the Refugee Convention and associated instruments, as well as beginning to treat refugees and asylum seekers with the dignity they deserve.
Even former Coalition immigration minister Philip Ruddock declared, when Pauline Hanson suggested that Australia should introduce TPVs, that leaving refugees with the uncertainty of temporary protection after they had suffered persecution in their home countries was unconscionable. However, he subsequently introduced 3-5 year TPVs for all refugees who arrived in Australia but had not been hand-picked by the government from refugee camps overseas. Upon the expiry of a TPV, refugees may apply for permanent protection, but the department of immigration can decide to simply renew the TPV, thereby leaving refugees with the fear of possibly being deported in the future.
Providing work rights for asylum seekers would improve the current situation whereby people who dare to access the legal system to have their protection applications adjudicated are punished by being denied access to employment for the duration of that process and having to beg from charities to survive. The idea that introducing work rights would open a "backdoor" for "illegal immigrants" to gain employment in Australia is manifestly untrue. Relatively short application processing times and strict criteria for lodging protection applications means that such efforts to circumvent the work restrictions on other visas is neither attractive nor effective.
Unfortunately, the Labor shadow cabinet accepted only the recommendation to restore refugees' right to permanent protection. The recommendations on access to Medicare and employment must be approved by Labor's April 2007 national conference before they can become official policy.
That said, the move to drop TPVs is the second positive policy shift by federal Labor, following its decision to end its support of the "Pacific Solution" and offshore processing of asylum seekers. The changes reflect that harsh treatment of refugees is increasingly unpopular in Australia, as well as a point of weakness for the Howard government, and are a testament to the campaigning efforts of the refugee-rights movement and refugees themselves. While there is still a long way to go, continuing to raise these important issues will eventually succeed in positive outcomes for refugees.