Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

Forcing families apart

Forcing families apart

A major theme of the Coalition’s policies has been to undermine the principle of family unity. The Australian Government is deliberately not reuniting anyone in Indonesia who has a spouse in Australia who came by boat, and continues to refuse to reunite families split between Nauru, Manus Island and Australia.

Under Coalition policies, people with temporary protection will never be able to sponsor their family to join them in Australia. People cannot even travel to see their family again, unless the Minister provides express permission. If they do travel without such permission, people will lose Australia’s protection. In November 2016, the Federal Government introduced a bill that would have even prevented people on Nauru and Manus Island from coming to Australia to visit family here, for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, this Bill has not yet been passed.

One of the most significant causes of trauma, for both people seeking asylum and those who have been recognised as refugees, is that family back home or in transit countries are not safe, mostly vulnerable and always too far.

I have gone seven years without seeing my own mum…I can talk to her on the phone but I can’t see her. And if I apply for her to come here, you know what the Government will say? “No.” She’s my mum! And every one of them – all the politicians, everyone in this country – on the weekend they go and see their mum and their grandmothers. What do you think about someone else? It’s the same love that we have.

– Former refugee from South Sudan, Sydney

Service providers, particularly people in counselling support, continuously see the results of such heartless policies. Such pressure on support services also takes a toll.

[Family reunion] is hugely significant. People didn’t start to make any kind of feeling of belonging, settling…[their] mental health suffers, physical health suffers, families suffer and the equivalent of survival guilt kicks in which adds to mental health issues. Many become so distressed that even offering counselling becomes too much…And it’s a hideous, hideous, heartbreaking thing to watch. And to work with these people year in and year out, it’s really quite distressing.

– Service provider, regional Victoria

People in Australia also often feel responsible for helping family back home or in transit countries financially. The many negative impacts for the person, their families and the Australian community are well documented.

Family reunion is a key. The reason why it is number one on my list is that socially, psychologically, emotionally, financially, [family separation] is not viable. I’m the only person in Australia now. My father has four wives. Now you do the maths, how many sisters and brothers I have. They’re all depending on me. Then that means I cannot settle. And I will never buy a house, because whatever little I have, I have to send it overseas. So that makes it really tough.

– Former refugee from South Sudan, Sydney

One of the main barriers to people being reunited is that it takes a very long time for applications to be processed. People put in applications for family reunion and hear nothing for months or years, meanwhile worrying every hour about the safety of their loved ones. There have been numerous instances where people waited seven and eight years for their wives or husbands to join them in Australia. There is very little legal help or even basic information for people in this position.

Another problem is that it can be very expensive to reunite with a loved one. For example, visa fees, airfares, support and legal fees can run to tens of thousands of dollars. Many people put themselves into significant debt hoping to be reunited with their families. In one heartbreaking example, a service provider in Adelaide spoke of a pensioner with physical and mental disabilities who had to find $22,000 to bring his wife and children to Australia.

The Australian system also ranks some family members above others, meaning that people are in practice unable to reunite with parents, siblings, or adult children. Another issue is that the Australian system requires documents which are often impossible to obtain in some countries, including their vital documents from UNHCR registering them as refugees.

A more recent barrier is the effective denial of family reunion to those who arrived by boat. People who arrived by boat are given the lowest priority for family reunion applications, the practical reality of which means they will never likely be able to reunite with their families. People who can only get temporary visas will never be able to sponsor their families.

A more recent way in which people can sponsor family to come is through the Community Proposal Pilot. This is not limited to people sponsoring family, as it allows for individuals and community groups to ask for a person to be resettled through an approved organisation. The main obstacle with this program is that it is very expensive. For a family of five, the visa fees alone are about $30,000. This makes it unaffordable for most people and means that it is money, not need, that determines who gets in.

Even if all these issues could be overcome, there are simply not enough places. There are only 500 places in this program and, in the pilot program, there were only five approved organisations to deliver under the program; yet in the last round, there were 10,000 expressions of interest. In New York in September 2016, the Australian Government committed to doubling this program, but it remains unclear whether this is in addition to the existing allocation of places in the refugee and humanitarian program, or will simply take away from existing and much-needed resettlement places.

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