Refugee Council of Australia
Boy in blue shirt looking ahead

Intake submission on Australia’s 2014-15 refugee and humanitarian program

Asylum policy

The level of concern about the general direction of Australia’s asylum policies was considerably higher at this year’s consultations than in previous years. These concerns primarily related to the sidelining of protection in the bid to implement punitive, deterrence-based policies and the failure to consider the broader factors influencing the movement of people seeking asylum towards Australia.

Participants lamented the overwhelming focus of Australia’s policies on border security, deterrence and punitive measures at the expense of protection, with some questioning whether Australia still had a genuine commitment to the protection of refugees.

The feedback on Australia’s current approach to asylum policy focused on:

  • questions related to the current state of the global protection environment and the broader factors influencing the movement of people seeking asylum towards Australia
  • the public debate and political rhetoric about asylum
  • the experiences of people seeking asylum living in the Australian community
  • the continuation of offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG)
  • the changes to the refugee status determination process
  • the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas
  • children and young people seeking asylum in Australia, and
  • immigration detention.

The general lack of understanding among Australians about the global refugee situation and the reasons why people seek asylum in Australia was highlighted as an obstacle to developing support for protection-focused policies. The dearth of positive political leadership was seen as not only failing to address this lack of understanding but also actively perpetuating myths, misinformation and negative messages about refugees and people seeking asylum.

One of the most significant issues of concern was the Government’s use of the term “illegal” to describe people seeking asylum arriving by boat and its directive to government staff and contractors to do likewise. There was general consensus among consultation participants that the use of this term was misleading, unfairly demonised people seeking asylum and represented an attempt to reinforce negative attitudes.

Participants put forward a number of suggestions for addressing the negativity and politicisation of the public and political debate. Public education and awareness-raising initiatives, including promoting success stories and the positive contributions made by people from refugee backgrounds, were seen as crucial to addressing the lack of understanding about refugee issues and breaking down myths and misinformation.

Much of the feedback from RCOA’s consultations focused on the experiences of people seeking asylum in the community and the impacts of Australia’s policies on them. The issues raised affecting people seeking asylum in the community included: the right to work; income payments; housing; education and English language training; meaningful activities and engagement; access to services; family separation; and the impact of government policies and practices.

As a majority of people seeking asylum in the community were denied the right to work, they faced prolonged and negative impacts on their health, safety and well-being. There was collective concern among consultation participants that, without the ability to earn a living, people would be left vulnerable to exploitation and corruption. Without work rights, people seeking asylum were left to rely on meagre income support payments (if eligible) and the assistance of charities and community members.

This forced destitution had flow-on effects in relation to their housing needs – as all people seeking asylum had to compete in the private rental market – and their participation in the Australian community in education, English language learning and meaningful activities like volunteering.

RCOA heard from agencies and community members about how people seeking asylum had limited access to services, including specific asylum seeker-centred programs as well as the broader state-based services in health, housing and life-skills.

The most troubling feedback that RCOA received about people seeking asylum in the community related to family separation and the impact of Government policy decisions, including the long delays and related uncertainty in protection claim assessments, the expiry of Bridging Visas and the new Code of Behaviour attached to visas only for people seeking asylum who arrived by boat.

In relation to offshore processing of people seeking asylum, consultation participants again raised serious concerns about the capacity of Nauru and PNG to provide adequate protection and support to people seeking protection; the conditions in offshore processing facilities and their impacts on the health and well-being of people seeking asylum; and the processes – or lack thereof – for assessing asylum claims and providing durable solutions to people found to be refugees.

Participants raised a range of concerns relating to Australia’s refugee status determination (RSD) process, including the proposed withdrawal of access to the Refugee Review Tribunal, the proposed implementation of a “fast-track” assessment process and the denial of access to RSD through the “enhanced screening” process.

The primary concern raised by consultation participants in relation to RSD, however, was the Government’s proposal to withdraw access to the Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme (IAAAS) for people seeking asylum who arrived in Australia without a visa.

Participants highlighted the complexity of the visa application and status determination process and the difficulties people seeking asylum would face in navigating this process in the absence of professional advice and application assistance. At the time of the consultations, the Australian Government had reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), a move universally opposed by participants in this year’s consultations.

Not a single participant expressed the view that the reintroduction of TPVs was a positive or constructive policy decision. Many participants expressed concern that the conditions imposed on TPV holders would hamper their ability to recover from experiences of trauma and settle successfully in Australia, citing the outcomes of Australia’s previous TPV policy.

The impact of these conditions on mental health and well-being was viewed as a particularly critical factor in this regard. Temporary status, uncertainty about the future, anxiety about being sent home, separation from family members and limited access to support services were all cited as factors which would undermine the mental health of TPV holders.

In relation to children and young people living in Australia and seeking protection, there was considerable concern for unaccompanied minors and their ability to navigate not only the protection system but also the transition to adulthood without the support of family or intensive program assistance.

Many consultation participants identified the policies for children and young people as compounding the trauma of the refugee journey. For children and young people separated from family, consultation participants were worried about their ability to live safely in the community and navigate Australia’s systems.

For children as part of families, there was concern that the parents’ trauma and anxiety over their future was having a direct effect on the welfare of the children. Immigration detention was a major issue for many of the people consulted, as there was concern that few people had been released from detention since the September 2013 Federal election.

The prolonged time in detention – for children and adults alike – was as seen as dangerous and in contradiction to the progress made in 2012 to release people from detention after initial identity, health and security checks. As in years past, there was considerable concern for the people detained for several years – with no prospect for release – as a result of their adverse security assessment from ASIO.