The refugee debate has become highly politicised in Australia as our government persistently tries to evade and overtly flout its voluntary legal obligations. Such policies lead to unnecessary and grave violations of the rights of those seeking protection. As George Orwell remarked: "Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."
The Abbott government has officially reintroduced the Howard-era temporary protection visa's (TPV's) for those who arrive by boat, which the Rudd Labor government abolished in 2008. Under the Migration Act, the TPV only gives refugees protection for up to three years, with no right to family reunification. The policy also prevents the applicant from applying for permanent protection within the first five years of the first TPV being issued.
The Coalition government is also planning to reduce the Refugee and Humanitarian Program from 20,000 places to 13,750. However, the TPV program is separate to the reduced humanitarian program because the Coalition desires to prevent "someone who comes by boat from taking the place of someone who is waiting to come our country through the proper processes."
Many asylum seekers cannot access such "proper channels" - including refugee camps like Kakuma in Kenya or the nine camps along the Thai/Burma Border or processing cities like Egypt and Lebanon - in order to undergo refugee status determination by UNHCR. Most refugees in such circumstances can spend an average of 10 years in limbo, in dire conditions, waiting to be resettled in a safe third country. Sometimes, their only means of escaping persecution and depravity is to get on a boat and apply for asylum.
Asylum seekers who reach Australian territory by boat are being sent to offshore processing centres in Nauru and Manus Island. Salvation Army staff at Nauru have "condemned the cruel and degrading conditions for those in detention," with "countless men suffering physically and psychologically. The mental health impact of detention in this harsh physical and policy environment cannot be overstated."
While former Head of Occupational Health and Safety, Rod St Georgewho worked at Manus Island says "it is not even fit to serve as a dog kennel." He has "never seen human beings so destitute, so helpless and so hopeless before."
According to the Coalition, if asylum seekers are found to be refugees, Australia "will work with other countries both within and outside the region to establish agreements for resettlement." However, Australia will provide TPV's "as a last resort for refugees assessed in offshore processing centres who cannot be placed in third countries."
Furthermore, Abbott has announced plans to deal with the backlog of nearly 32,000 people already in Australia on bridging visas in detention centres. The Coalition will introduce a rapid audit of their claims, by which a single immigration caseworker will decide the refugee status of people who had arrived in Australia by boat. TPV's will apply to those who arrived after March 24, 2012.
Amnesty International spokesman Graeme McGregor says the re-introduction of TPVs will undermine human rights protections for asylum seekers. "Once again, we have favoured punishment over protection of genuine refugees by choosing to repackage failed policies of the past," he said.
"The use of TPVs during the first Pacific Solution was shown to have severe mental health consequences on recognised refugees, who in many cases have fled terror and torture."
The Refugee Council of Australia believes that the restrictive TPV policy "does not allow refugees access to the full range of services that are necessary for their successful settlement; compounds psychological strains of past trauma; ethnic communities are over-burdened by the high demand for assistance from TPV holders; and Federal funding restrictions shift costs and burdens to state and community services."
Essentially, if you have the means and the requisite visa (usually a tourist or student visa) to arrive by plane and then apply for asylum, you will be treated with dignity. However, if you are so desperate as to get on a boat and request protection, you will suffer the consequences for being so vulnerable.
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