The Federal Labor Government made good on an election promise last week to finally provide about 19,000 refugees and asylum seekers who have lived in limbo for 10 years a pathway to permanent protection in Australia. Current holders of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs), who were subjected to the Abbott Government’s cruel and misleadingly named “Fast Track” visa status determination process, will be eligible to apply for Permanent Resolution of Status by the end of 2023.
The announcement concludes a decade of uncertainty and diminished human rights for vulnerable people already living, working and paying taxes here. But a further 12,000 refugees in Australia, who arrived under similar circumstances in the same time period but were refused under the Fast Track process, have been left out.“The only thing we ask the government, for almost 10 years, just to give us a permanent visa,” 25-year-old Tamil refugee, Prasanth Kumaravel, told VICE. “It's not fair at all that just half of the people get permanent visas — not us.“It's really, really heartbreaking every day.”
Kumaravel, his parents and his older sister fled Sri Lanka’s violent civil war, which claimed the lives of 100,000 people, in the 1990s when he was just a baby. They arrived in a refugee camp in India with little money, no passports and no certainty of what would happen next.They lived there, indefinitely, for 15 years, before they decided to try to find a home in Australia.“We wanted to go to the safest country and have a peaceful life,” he said.“But it's happened to us, the same thing again.“Australia for us now is just another refugee camp.”Kumaravel, his parents, sister, brother-in-law and nieces live in Melbourne on bridging visas. Because they arrived by boat between August 2012 and December 2013 — without passports, flying wasn’t an option — they were subject to the now-widely criticised Fast Track process. But they were denied TPVs because the Fast Track system, introduced by then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, changed the legal definition of a refugee in Australia to exclude those who came by boat.
Of the 31,000 refugees to go through this short-lived system, 19,000 successful applicants were able to apply for a TPV (valid for three years) or a SHEV (valid for up to five years if they work or study in a regional area for 3.5 of those years). 12,000 unsuccessful applicants were handed bridging visas, valid for just six months. “You cannot make any decisions for six months on what do you do, where you’re gonna stay or what kind of job you want to do,” Kurdish refugee Farhad Bandesh told VICE.“You're living in a community, but you're kind of not living [there].”
Bandesh came to Australia in 2013 and was detained for a total of seven years at Christmas Island, Manus Island, Port Moresby and the Mantra Hotel in Melbourne’s northern suburbs. He was released in 2020 on a bridging visa.Like the rest of the 31,000 people in the Fast Track system’s “Legacy Caseload”, Bandesh is unable to travel outside Australia to see family settled elsewhere, take out a loan to buy a house, start a business, access subsidised university fees, or apply for welfare support. Last week, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said “it makes no sense – economically or socially – to keep them in limbo” any longer. Well, half of them anyway.“He acknowledged that people who have been in the Australian community for a decade deserve to be recognised as part of it,” Managing Lawyer at the Human Rights Law Centre, Sanmati Verma, said.
“But the lives of people who have been rejected through the Fast Track system are just as real as anyone else’s. “To require those 12,000 people to wait for an indefinite period and rely on the Minister’s personal mercy in order to plan for a future is not only cruel: it is contrary to the very purpose of the government’s announcement.”
Aran Mylvaganam, the founder of the Tamil Refugee Council, told VICE he received more than 100 phone calls in the hours after the announcement from refugees who were scared, upset and desperate for clarification. “They were completely left out, despite Labor's acknowledgement that these people were put through [the same] unfair process,” Mylvaganam said. “People are being mentally tortured through a complex visa process [and] there's no rational reason behind it, just some arbitrary decisionmaking.”Australia’s immigration legislation is complex because it is so highly politicised. Late last year, the Labor Government plucked the Nadesalingam family from purgatory with the stroke of a pen after years of media attention and acknowledged the torment they endured as a result of politicking.
But Jana Favero, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre’s director of advocacy and campaigns, told VICE the government had been selective yet again.
“We can't understate the significance of this, because it is the most positive policy change impacting refugees in 15 years in our country,” she said. “It's 19,000 people who are now able to get on with and rebuild their lives. It's a testament to the bravery, strength and resilience of refugees on those visas to get this outcome.“But you’ve still got 150 people trapped offshore in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, and we recognise that there are many, many more people seeking asylum and refugees who are not part of the announcement.“They've got to rectify 10 years of totally decimating people's rights.”Kumaravel said he has been disappointed by Australia since he arrived and often felt “hopeless” for his future here.“For all my life, I’m a refugee,” he said.“I don’t want this to happen generation to generation. It’s already been 10 years, I don’t want it to be 20.”Aleksandra Bliszczyk is a Senior Reporter for VICE Australia. You can follow her on Instagram here, or on Twitter here.