Labor’s refugee announcement is not enough

14 February 2023
Jasmine Duff

The federal government’s announcement that roughly 19,000 Temporary Protection (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise (SHEV) visa holders will be eligible to apply for a permanent Resolution of Status visa fulfils a key election promise and has been met with relief and joy.

But the long-awaited policy change excludes at least 12,000 people, possibly closer to 14,500, who continue to live in uncertainty, are denied their rights and face deportation. Mostly, they are people on bridging visas who had been waiting to be approved for a TPV or SHEV. There are others, whose cases are being heard in the courts because their TPV or SHEV application has been refused or their visa cancelled.

“It’s devastating. I’ve had about 70 calls this morning”, Aran Mylvaganam from the Tamil Refugee Council told Red Flag on the day of the announcement. “A lot of people thought Labor was waiting this long to make the announcement because they were working out a way to help people on bridging visas.”

Some 2,500 people have had their TPV or SHEV cancelled or refused. None will be eligible for permanent protection. “Those people are living like ghosts. The Immigration Department doesn’t know where they live and they mostly work cash in hand”, Mylvaganam said.

The process for obtaining refugee status and a protection visa is often complex and the result arbitrary or based on unreliable information or opinion. Mylvaganam noted the case of one woman whose TPV was approved, while her son’s application was denied. She will now likely be eligible for permanent protection, but her son will remain locked in immigration detention.

“People who have been refused through the broken ‘fast-track’ system are some of the most vulnerable in the community”, Mylvaganam continued. “For a decade, they have battled through a flawed visa process and waited for a chance to plan for a future. In the meantime, they have built lives, made families—some have children who were born here and are citizens attending primary school, yet their parents still face deportation.”

Announcing the change, Home Affairs Minister Claire O’Neill reiterated that the Labor Party is still committed to the Coalition’s appalling “border protection” framework, which denies people their basic, internationally recognised right to seek safety from persecution.

“Let me be crystal clear: if you try to enter Australia without a valid visa you will be turned back or returned to your port of origin”, she said. “There is zero chance of settling in Australia under Operation Sovereign Borders. The Australian Defence Force and Australian Border Force are patrolling our waters to intercept and return any boats that try to enter.”

Last week, Labor used parliament’s first sitting of 2023 to continue for another ten years the refugee prison on Nauru. After years of abuse, suicides and self-harm in the facility, the legislative instrument that designates it a processing centre lapsed in October. The government could have ended “offshore processing” on the island. Instead, Labor chose the cruellest option: to extend the torture regime for another decade.

Prior to Labor’s extension of the Nauru legislation, the Greens introduced a bill calling for the refugees still there to be evacuated to Australia. But the bill is far too conservative. In a statement, senator Nick McKim said that it “has been designed specifically to fit within Labor’s policy settings”.

To that end, the proposed legislation doesn’t require the government to settle the refugees in Australia. It just calls for the government to support them until another country agrees to take them in. This is a concession to the right-wing argument that refugees who come to Australia by boat should never be allowed to settle here.

Third country settlement is barely more than human trafficking. When people flee persecution and reach Australia seeking safety and protection, they ought not be shunted off to some other country.

What’s the point of the Greens if all they do is propose bills that are conservative enough to “fit within Labor’s policy settings”? You can’t push politics to the left by capitulating to the parameters set by the right. The more parties that accept that asylum seekers can’t be settled in Australia, the more it seems like common sense rather than a vicious right-wing oddity.

It’s a good thing that thousands of people now be eligible for permanent protection. But we should be clear that this does not mark an end to the decades of racist policy towards refugees by Labor and the Liberals.

We need to demand far more. Refugees deserve the right to permanent protection, irrespective of their visa status. They should have the right to settle in Australia and the right to citizenship, no matter how they arrived here or when.

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