Fighting to let refugees stay

( [email protected] ) Nov 14, 2003 12:05 PM EST

In the West Australian town of Albany, many locals are awaiting anxiously the decision on the fate of a young Afghan who's appearing today before the Refugee Review Tribunal in Perth. The 25-year-old from Kabul, who has been on a temporary protection visa (TPV) since 2000 and works at the abattoir, is one of about 60 refugees in Albany. As their applications for fresh visas come up, they are being told by the Immigration Department that they must go home. This young man's is the first appeal from this group and the decision is likely to set a precedent.

David Sims, a local stonemason who teaches some of the Afghans English, told The Age the community is "absolutely up in arms" at the Afghans being forced out. "We're really attached to them," he said, adding that he would be willing to mortgage his house to keep this man in Australia.

Last month, Albany City Council wrote to Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone urging that the "Albany Hazara Afghan Refugees . . . be given permanent refugee status", so "they can continue their valuable contribution to the social, cultural and economic fabric of the region". Sims said the abattoir, which employs about 50 of the men, "is looking for 120 new workers, and here is the Government likely to oust 50 of those it has".

The Albany story is echoed in many communities, especially in regional areas where people are taking up the cause of refugees who the Federal Government says must, when their TPV runs out, show they are still refugees. Even if they manage to do that, they will often continue to live here "temporarily", uncertain of the future and unable to bring out family members.

As the numbers of boat people in detention falls away, increasing attention will be on the plight of those on TPVs facing repatriation or limbo-land.

The Nationals' whip, John Forrest, has bravely broken usually tight Government ranks to call for a better deal for them. Such a stand from a National might cause surprise. But many of the refugees have gone to the country, where they're providing labour for industries such as fruit growing. These communities are now doubly attached to the refugees. They see them filling an important worker shortage. And, typical of smaller places, they think people they've got to know personally are entitled to a fair go. After Tampa, Rural Australians for Refugees was set up in NSW's Southern Highlands. It includes people with a range of political views, and has more than 50 local groups.

Forrest makes two points about TPV holders: it should be easier for them to make their case against being sent home, and those regarded as eligible for a second visa should then be able to settle permanently.

Liberal senator Marise Payne, a moderate from NSW, says Forrest is "echoing concerns a number of coalition MPs have" (although other moderates are keeping silent publicly).

Payne says if the Government is prepared to give refugees a second visa, "they should be entitled to stay permanently and make a home and a life for themselves with their families". That, she points out, would go some way back to the old system, which gave any refugee permanent residence.

Kay Hull (Nationals, Riverina), who has TPV holders in the fruit-growing areas around Griffith and Leeton, says: "Some of them have enormous difficulty in trying to get their lives together when they don't know what's going to happen to them in the next three years." But, Hull says: "I haven't thought through how it might be resolved."

The TPV system for people who arrived unlawfully was introduced in 1999. It was toughened in September 2001: the change laid down that refugees who had obtained their first visa before then were able to apply for permanent residency second time round, but not most of those who applied after that.

In a further wrinkle of unfairness, about 2400 refugees who should be in the former category are not, because they hadn't sought their second visa by the cut-off date.

The system, part of discouraging people-smuggling, boils down to repatriating refugees where possible. That hard line will be at a high human cost, as thousands of cases come up over coming months and years. Many will be denied another visa; those who get a second temporary one will face continuing uncertainty and denial of rights.

On the latest (October) figures, 8860 people have been granted TPVs, including 3658 Afghans and 4254 Iraqis. More than 90 per cent of TPV holders have applied for further protection visas; 350 have had decisions. Of these, 342 were refused (about 130 due to them choosing to leave).

It is important to remember that those on TPV holders are people whose refugee status was initially accepted. They came illegally, but they had valid claims. Ironically, the wars Australia fought against Afghanistan and Iraq have disadvantaged refugees from these countries in their claims to stay, because the regimes from which they fled have been ousted. While the Afghans are losing their claims to a new visa, the Iraqis are moving more slowly through the system, because of the difficulty of getting accurate information about the situation in the country.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has called for a ban on the return of any Iraqis, whether refugees or failed asylum seekers. The UNHCR urges a review of the TPV system. Spokeswoman Ellen Hansen says: "We're particularly concerned at the Australian practice of denying recognised refugees family reunion and travel documents and forcing them to reassert their claims to refugee status after an arbitrary time period."

On November 23-24, organisations from various parts of the country will send a group of TPV holders, supporters and employers to Canberra to lobby for change. Delegates will also give "thank you" certificates to MPs for them to present to refugee support groups in their electorates.

They will be a reminder that while most Australians want a tough border protection policy, many of them are willing to extend a helping hand to people who, once here, have shown themselves worthy residents who don't deserve the treatment they're getting.