Refugee Council of Australia
Passport with Australia immigration stamp

Recent changes in Australian refugee policy

Temporary protection visas

Temporary protection

Previous policy

TPVs were previously in place in Australia between 1999 and 2008. Granted to refugees who arrived by boat, they allowed people to remain in Australia for three years, after which they had to re-apply for protection. TPV holders could not travel outside Australia, sponsor family members for resettlement and had only limited access to services and support.

The negative impacts of these conditions on the health, wellbeing and settlement outcomes of TPV holders have been well documented. In practice, the TPV policy proved impractical because few refugees with temporary status were ever able to return home safely. By the time it left office in late 2007, the Howard Government had quietly granted permanent protection to more than 9,500 of the 11,300 refugees previously on TPVs.

Reintroduction of TPVs

TPVs were re-introduced in 2014 for refugees who came to Australia without a prior valid visa (by sea or by air). TPVs allow a refugee to stay in Australia for a maximum of three years, after which their protection claims are reassessed. In contrast to the previous TPV policy, people with a TPV are only permitted to apply for another temporary visa and are never eligible for permanent residency.

Importantly, they cannot sponsor their family members to join them in Australia. Further, they cannot travel overseas and return without permission from the government, which will be granted only in compelling circumstances.

They can work in Australia and have access to Medicare, income support and English language tuition. They can also receive torture and trauma counselling and employment assistance. However, they are not eligible for the full range of settlement support services available to other humanitarian entrants. They can receive only a more limited form of income support known as Special Benefit, and not other benefits such as the Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance or Austudy.

They are not eligible for federal programs that support students to finance tertiary study. People who want to do further or university study will lose their Special Benefit allowances if they take a course of more than 12 months.

Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs)

This new temporary visa is similar to the TPV but will be issued for a period of five years. A refugee living on a SHEV needs to indicate an intention to work and/or study in a designated regional or rural area. All states and territories have now opted into the SHEV arrangement, although they have different arrangements for identifying regional or rural areas.

If SHEV holders undertake study or work without accessing income support for at least three-and-a-half years, they will be able to apply for another type of temporary or permanent visa (such as a skilled or family visa but not a permanent Protection visa). While SHEVs may provide a pathway to permanent residency for some refugees, most will be unable to satisfy the eligibility requirements for permanent visas.

Our guide to temporary protection visas and SHEVS

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Other measures

Use of term ‘illegal maritime arrivals’

In October 2013, the Australian Government instructed staff and contractors to refer to people arriving by boat as “illegal maritime arrivals” (previously “irregular maritime arrivals”). This is despite the fact that it is not illegal to come to Australia to seek asylum under Australian and international law.

Fact check: Seeking asylum is not illegal

Denial of family reunion

Refugees who came to Australia by boat and are not yet citizens have virtually no opportunity for family reunion. Their family reunion applications are given “lowest processing priority”, unless there are (undefined) ‘special circumstances of a compassionate nature’ or where processing of applications would otherwise be unreasonably delayed. This means that almost all applications have very little chance of success.

PV and SHEV holders cannot sponsor family members under any program and cannot become citizens unless the Minister grants them permanent residency or they are able to satisfy the eligibility criteria for a permanent Australian visa (for SHEV holders).

Our report on family reunion

Citizenship delays and proposed changes to citizenship criteria

People of refugee background have been facing significant delays when applying for citizenship. Despite having passed all legal requirements, including passing the citizenship test, many have not been invited to attend their citizenship ceremony. The ceremony is the final stage where applicants pledge to commit to Australia and receive their citizenship. One of the reasons for this delay is the change to the way the Department of Immigration confirms a person’s identity. People whose cases need more thorough identity checks are put in a “complex case” group.

The Department of Home Affairs revealed during May 2018 Senate estimates that the average time of processing citizenship applications has increased from 12 months to 16 months. In a survey of 1000 people conducted by Refugee Council of Australia, many refugees were waiting for up to three years for their citizenship applications to be finalised.

In 2017, the Australian Government proposed a number of changes to the citizenship criteria for Australian citizenship. These changes would have required a person to be a permanent for four years, and to pass an English test at a “competent” level, close to the standard required for entry to Australian universities. There would also have been changes to the citizenship test to assess applicants’ ‘Australian values’, and a cap on the number of times a person could fail the test. The proposal was blocked by the Senate, but a new version is set to be reintroduced in 2018.

Our submission on the citizenship test

Establishment of Home Affairs Department

On 20 December 2017, the Department of Home Affairs was established. It combined the Department of Immigration and Border Protection with national security, emergency management and criminal justice functions of the Attorney-General’s Department, the Office of Transport Security from the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, multicultural affairs from the Department of Social Services, and the counter-terrorism coordination and cyber security policy functions from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

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