The many challenges faced by refugee and humanitarian entrants in Australia in reuniting with their families have been consistently nominated as a primary issue of concern for refugee communities in Australia. Currently, these challenges are perhaps most acute for those who arrived in Australia by boat. Beginning in 2012, the introduction of new restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities has seriously limited the capacity of former refugees who arrived by boat to sponsor their family members for resettlement in Australia. In 2014, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) conducted a small-scale research project to gather the views of representatives from the Hazara community about the impacts of these restrictions.
The principal researcher was RCOA intern Latifa Hekmat, an accredited Hazaragi interpreter, who worked with Lucy Morgan, RCOA Information and Policy Coordinator, in developing and preparing the report. Nine Hazara community members living in Sydney and Adelaide were interviewed for the project. Interviews were conducted in Hazaragi and translated into English.
This paper summarises the key findings from this project.
There are two main avenues through which refugee and humanitarian entrants are able to sponsor family members for resettlement in Australia. The first is the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP), a subclass of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. In 2012, in line with recommendations put forward by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, Protection Visa holders who arrived in Australia by boat (excepting unaccompanied minors) were barred from sponsoring family members for resettlement under the SHP. At the same time (and also following the recommendations of the Expert Panel), an additional 4,000 places were allocated to the family stream of the Migration Program – the second main family reunion avenue for refugee and humanitarian entrants – specifically earmarked for humanitarian visa holders.
Following the September 2013 Federal election, the newly-elected Government introduced further restrictions on access to family reunion for people who arrived by boat. All Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat (including unaccompanied minors) are now ineligible to sponsor family members under the SHP. In addition, family visa applications lodged by Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat are afforded the lowest processing priority, meaning that they have little chance of success. Furthermore, the 4,000 family stream places for refugee and humanitarian entrants have not been maintained. As a result, Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat face the prospect of indefinite separation from their family members, unless they become Australian citizens (to whom these restrictions do not apply).
Holders of temporary humanitarian visas (such as Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas) are not eligible to sponsor family members for resettlement under the SHP or family stream of the Migration Program. However, as these visas were introduced after the conclusion of this research project, issues affecting these visa holders are not covered in this paper.
General comments on policy changes
A number of the participants interviewed for this project felt that the new restrictions on access to family reunion were unjust, even cruel. One participant, for example, felt that it was unfair for the Australian Government to retrospectively deny him access to family reunion given that he was now contributing to Australia: “I do not have financial problems because I work. Since I arrived I have paid about $40,000 tax to the Government. It has been about four years that I have been paying tax. I paid tax but it has no effect on my application.” Another participant felt it was unjust of the Government to apply the new processing priorities to existing applications which were already well advanced, particularly in light of the fact that application fees for family visas are not refundable:
I think the new policy makes life for many refugees extremely hard. I have a friend whose family visa was about to be granted. After this policy, their flight coming to Australia has been cancelled. Look how cruel this policy is. This much cruelty, I have not heard of its existence. The Government are very cruel towards the refugees as they still take their immigration fee.
Some participants expressed exasperation about the numerous changes to family reunion policy in recent years and resulting uncertainty regarding their prospects of reuniting with their families. In the words of one participant, “At first I did not know about the spouse visa and I lodged a humanitarian application. After three years, I was told that you cannot continue this any longer and you need to lodge spouse visa. I said yes. When I lodged the spouse visa, then the policy changed again.” Another stated that the constant policy changes “lead many to an uncertain future. Now we are like water bubbles that every wave of water takes from one place to another. This indefinite situation is very bad. The Government needs to free us from this indefinite and non-committal position.”
Some also expressed confusion regarding their current eligibility for family reunion opportunities. As stated by one participant, “I am not sure what to do. Some people say that until you are not citizen, you would not be able to bring your family. Others say it will be six years until you would be able to reunite with your family in Australia. I do not know what the issue is. What is the exact policy and regulation about refugees?”
Impact on settlement outcomes
Feedback from those interviewed indicated that policy changes relating to family reunion have had a significant negative impact on settlement outcomes. A number of community members, after learning that their family visa applications were now unlikely to succeed, had lost their motivation to participate in activities such as English classes, education and employment. In the words of one participant, “Before the announcement of the policy I was working and studying and I was very hopeful but this policy led me to stop work and I now just study and I go to class then get a headache because I do not remember what I read.” Another participant similarly reported that:
After this policy I ended everything. It has been six months since I stopped my study because I am not able to study anymore. Before this policy I went to English, Holy Quran classes and everywhere. Those classes reduced and eliminated my loneliness and I was thinking that this loneliness will end one day but after this policy I ended everything.
Indefinite separation from family members also had a negative impact on the capacity of community members to plan for the future. Several participants indicated that they felt unable to make long-term plans due to the ongoing uncertainty regarding whether they would be able to reunite with their families in Australia, or because they felt that they could not make important decisions about their future without the input of their family members. In the words of one participant, “This new policy destroyed my future plan and now I do not know what I do and not do.”
Community members also reported that could not feel fully settled or secure in Australia while they remained separated from their families. As noted by one participant, “I saved myself from the insecure situation but I feel that I did not save my family yet. I feel that I am responsible to get them in a safe place like Australia and then we can start a peaceful life here. I came to Australia not just to save my life. I have family and my purpose is to save them. I do not feel relief until I get them here.”
Several of the community members interviewed reported that prolonged separation from their families had had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. Some had arrived in Australia with high hopes of being able to sponsor their family members to join them and were devastated to learn that this would not be possible. As one participant stated, “I was expectant and hopeful for Immigration and the Australian Government to get my family here sooner but my hope is replaced with disappointment by this new policy … This led me to suffer from this life and get nightmares, no sleep and no desire for life and lots of other problems.” Another participant described his feelings upon receiving the news that his family visa application would now be afforded the lowest processing priority:
It was very terrible and disappointing when I see and read the letter. I felt powerless and incapable. I was thinking to get my family sooner but that did not happen. On the other hand, I should answer the constant question of my wife, asking me ‘what happened and when we will reunite with you?’ I desperately tried to not tell her the real story. It is very hard for me when I call her and continually confront the same question.
Other participants similarly reported feeling powerless to assist their families. Anxiety about the safety and wellbeing of family members left behind, many of whom were living in highly precarious or dangerous situations, was seen by several participants as a major driver of poor mental health. In the words of one community member, “Too much pressure, I go to psychologists. It has been about four years that I live this long distance from my family. It is very hard that you care about a person and live far away and are unable to help them.” Another stated that “Now this life does not mean [anything] to me … This new policy is extremely bad, it rips mother from child, wife from husband and leads us to mental illness.”
One participant drew attention to the costs of providing support to people whose mental health had been adversely affected by prolonged family separation. They argued that facilitating family timely reunion would thus reduce the costs to the Australian Government: “I think it would be in the Government’s interest if people with permanent visas reunited with their families. Those people won’t be much affected by the mental problems and worries and they might not go to psychologists.”
The application process
In addition to providing feedback on the impacts of recent policy changes, participants commented on a range of general difficulties they had experienced when attempting to lodge applications for family reunion. Several participants had children over the age of 18 who were no longer considered to be dependent relatives. They were greatly concerned that these children could not be sponsored for resettlement alongside the rest of their families. As recounted by one participant, “When I was in the detention centre, my children were underage. Now many of them are over 18 and the government policy says that parents would not be able to reunite with their over aged children. This policy worried me a lot and now I have tension. I am worried day and night.” Another related that:
I sponsored all of my children in 2010 but after waiting three years, one of my daughters got married because I could not get her here. After she got married, she gave birth. I could not bring her now because Immigration rejected that and told me she is no more my immediate family.
One participant expressed concern that they had “no money to pay the migration agent to lodge an application for my family”. Another reported difficulties in obtaining the necessary documentation to lodge an application for family reunion:
It was very difficult for us to prepare the documents because we did not have Afghan documents in Iran … I gave birth to my children at home and they did not have a birth certificate. So, the Afghan Embassy in Iran came to our place and investigated about us from our neighbours … It took nearly six months. It was hard because when the documents were ready, I did not have money to pay for them but I finally got a loan … Getting a loan was not as difficult as preparing the documents, especially the translation. I took the birth certificates to many places for translation and they were unable to translate them.
Several participants expressed concern that their limited English language skills were hampering their capacity to reunite with their family members. For example, one participant had received the wrong documents from the Department of Immigration because they had been unable to convey what they needed without the assistance of an interpreter. Another stated that “I need interpreter to tell me about the new family reunion policy. It is still unclear for me.” One community member, having learned that he would no longer face restrictions on family reunion if he obtained citizenship, feared that he would not be able to pass the citizenship test due to his limited English language and computer skills: “My problem is that I have no idea about computers. I am not sure if I would pass my citizenship or not. I think I will fail because I have very less English.”
The findings of this project echo the consistent message received through RCOA’s community consultations over many years: that indefinite separation from family members can have serious negative impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of refugee and humanitarian entrants and their capacity to settle successfully in and contribute to Australia. The additional restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities introduced since 2012 have further compounded these negative impacts for Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat. We strongly recommend that all refugee and humanitarian entrants, regardless of their mode of arrival in Australia, be granted full access to family reunion opportunities under the SHP and family stream of the migration program.