Life on the outside

September 7, 2005

Sarah Stephen

"In the euphoria of their release, most of these people have little inkling of what lies in store for them outside the razor wire", former human rights commissioner Marcus Einfeld told guests at a recent fundraising dinner.

There are fewer asylum seekers in Australia's detention centres than at any point in the last six or seven years, and many of those who spent years in detention are now living in the community. Despite this, the campaign to end discrimination and persecution of refugees, while having celebrated some victories, still continues.

There has been a steady trickle of releases of long-term detainees from the Baxter detention centre, most of them young men. All are mentally damaged by the detention experience.

Some, but not all, of those released in recent months have been released on removal pending bridging visas (RPBV). This visa came into effect in May, and is offered by the immigration minister to selected asylum seekers.

Father Jim Carty from the House of Welcome in Sydney, which provides services to asylum seekers struggling to survive in the community, told Green Left Weekly that the RPBV is "a draconian, Kafkaesque concept", but explained that the visa's conditions are much better than what was first mooted. At first it offered asylum seekers access to nothing, but now it's similar to a temporary protection visa (TPV) in its conditions.

Mira Wroblewski from Rural Australians for Refugees (RAR) thinks the conditions had to be pretty good in order to get the asylum seekers to sign up for them. An onerous requirement is that they have to report to the immigration department (DIMIA) every two weeks.

Many Iranians in Baxter, fearful about signing for an RPBV, held off and were eventually successful in getting full case reassessments under section 48B of the Migration Act, being granted TPVs or permanent visas.

Mental problems

Mental health problems among long-term detainees are acute, and they don't go away once people are released from detention. Wroblewski told Green Left Weekly that when she was visiting some refugee friends in Adelaide a month ago, there were almost a dozen asylum seekers in Glenside psychiatric hospital, some spending time there after they had received their visas. Some were outpatients.

Some recently released refugees have great support networks in Adelaide. Wroblewski described an example of a "circle of friends" in the Adelaide hills who accommodated refugees in their homes when they were released from detention, and then helped them to find flats and look for jobs. "They even bring meals around to them!" Wroblewski was amazed at the speedy recovery of one of these refugees, who had spent time in Glenside before getting a visa, as a result of this support.

Wroblewski knows of two asylum seekers on RPBVs who have recently had problems with DIMIA not keeping proper records of their "signing on", which they are required to do every two weeks. "One man was told that DIMIA didn't have a card for him, even though he has been signing on there for a couple of months. Another was sent a letter by the removals branch of DIMIA informing him that he hadn't signed on. He'd moved to a different state and registered with DIMIA there, but the original office didn't remove his record from its files and had notified the removals branch when he stopped coming in."

These examples show there is a possibility that people could be deported as a result of DIMIA's poor administration.

Some refugee advocates are convinced, after discussions with DIMIA, that no-one on an RPBV will be deported. Others are not so confident. A Bangladeshi asylum seeker in Villawood detention centre signed up for an RPBV in August. He wasn't released from Villawood, and only days later received 28 days' notice of his deportation. A Palestinian man who had been offered an RPBV was deported, without notice, on August 30.

However, there is no greater risk of deportation on an RPBV compared with being in detention, even when an appeal is underway. Asylum seekers have been removed while a section 417 appeal to the minister was still pending.

Lack of support

Pamela Curr, campaign coordinator for Melbourne's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, is furious at the callous lack of support refugees receive when they're released from detention.

"Australian prisoners, who speak the language, who know the culture and have family and support networks, are given a pre-release package, they're connected up with everything before they're released", Curr told GLW.

However, refugees granted TPVs in Baxter are given half an hour's notice, then they're pushed out the gate. They're picked up by advocates — nuns or RAR members — who take them out to dinner and provide them with overnight accommodation. Then they're put on a bus to Adelaide. The Australian Refugee Association meets them at the other end, and helps them sort out registration with Centrelink, Medicare, and open a bank account. It's all done by volunteers — the government doesn't do any of it."

TPV holders are eligible for the special benefit, which is 89% of the Newstart rate, while they're looking for a job. Whether it is granted is highly discretionary, according to Curr. She gave the example of a couple who were granted a payment of just $60 each per week.

"The Centrelink officer decided that because they were temporarily sleeping on the floor of an advocate's house, they had accommodation. To get it changed required two visits to Centrelink with an Australian advocate. Centrelink's Multicultural Service Officers are very helpful, but there aren't enough of them, and refugees are often left to deal with the officers at the front desk."

Sometimes refugees are given a Medicare card, but it expires after a short period. Sometimes they don't find out until they've visited a doctor, had tests done, bought some medication and are presented with a bill.

Some visas don't even provide the 100 points of ID necessary to open a bank account. To "solve" this problem, Curr explained, DIMIA has done a deal with Westpac so the bank will accept more limited ID. Despite this agreement, Curr told GLW how an advocate had to stand in the bank with a refugee for half an hour while they waited for the teller to make a phone call and confirm that the refugee was eligible to open an account.

Work and stress

"The first thing [released refugees] want to do is work", Curr explained, "but they're not well enough". Those who do start working soon after release "crash within two to three days". In their fragile mental state, they cannot cope with stress. The layers of bureaucracy and the endless need to fill in forms is something strange to them.

Two men released from Baxter were so overwhelmed by their inability to cope with life outside that they asked to go back into detention. One went all the way back to the detention centre, but was refused entry.

When asylum seekers are in detention, they are not allowed to make decisions on anything. Suddenly they are released and have to fend for themselves, said Curr.

Finding accommodation is one of the biggest obstacles refugees encounter — the need to find bond and a month's rent in advance makes it almost impossible for some. One man told Curr: "If I had a place I could sleep, where I could sit and think, I could deal with it."

Two Iranians got a flat together, signed the lease, then one of them was offered a job in the country. Curr explained that he took the job "without realising that he was leaving his friend in the lurch". The estate agent told his friend that he'd be blacklisted in Australia and wouldn't ever be able to rent a house if he broke the lease. "These two guys went to the local supermarket and they were asked to open their bags for inspection. They'd been strip-searched in detention, and they thought now that they were out it was all over — they were angry and humiliated because they thought they were being targeted. They didn't realise that everyone is asked to show their bags."

In Wroblewski's experience, some refugees who spent a long time in detention before receiving a TPV are no better now than when they first got released. An Iranian she knows who has been out of detention for two months has regular anxiety attacks.

"People just out of detention are like the walking dead. After a while you start to recognise that 'just got out of Baxter' look. It reflects a mixture of shock and suspicion. There's also a deep mistrust of Australians."

Wroblewski and Curr know refugees who have been out of detention for nine or 10 months who still have nightmares about being deported, or being locked up in small spaces.

"It's a shock to discover that the refugees who are doing the best, once you get to know them well enough, confide that they still wake up screaming and thinking they're in Baxter", Wroblewski said. "The nightmares have got worse with the anti-Muslim stuff in the media recently. When the Brazilian man was shot in London, anxiety levels increased significantly."

From Green Left Weekly, September 7, 2005.
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