Canberra, Australia – Refugees in Australia are stepping up pressure on Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s three-month-old government to keep its promise to give them permanent protection visas that would allow them to work, study and lead more normal lives .
More than 1,000 refugees, advocates and activists converged on parliament on Tuesday to make their case.
“We are here because we want action, we want change. We want to be recognized within this community,” said Mostafa Faraji, speaker at the rally in Canberra.
Currently, 31,000 refugees live in Australia on various temporary visas that limit their lives, whether for work, study or family relationships.
As the May elections approach, the Albanese Labor Party has promised to scrap some of the temporary visas and provide permanent protection in their place.
During the protest, Australia’s Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles, issued a statement on social media reiterating the promise and saying it would be kept “as soon as possible”.
Holders of temporary protection visas deserve stability and assurance for their future – to grow their businesses, buy homes, study and find secure employment – many of them in regional areas.
— Andrew Giles MP (@andrewjgiles) September 6, 2022
There are three types of temporary visas for refugees in Australia: Temporary protection visas (POS), Haven corporate visas (DENFC) and gateway visas. The government has promised to phase out TPVs and SHEVs.
These temporary visas are granted to refugees who arrive without a valid protection visa, usually by boat. When the holder’s temporary visa expires, their application for protection is reassessed and their visa has the option of being extended.
A SHEV holder could apply for a permanent visa, “but in the entire history of SHEVs, only two have adhered to the strict language [requirements] and been eligible,” Ian Rintoul, political activist and spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition, told Al Jazeera.
Someone with a TPV cannot apply for a permanent visa at all.
Visas also place constraints on people’s potential to work and study.
While TPVs and SHEVs allow the holder to do both – and pay taxes – visa holders often find higher paying jobs out of reach.
People on TPV or SHEV are generally restricted from studying as international students, which means they have to pay exorbitant fees, said Faraji, who is studying for degrees in law and nursing.
To pay for his studies and “to survive”, he had to find any job, from driving Uber to working as a security guard.
The reality is that many employers do not accept temporary visas, he said.
“They either apply for a student visa or permanent protection or a citizen visa or a skilled work visa,” Faraji said. “So, therefore, your job opportunities…it’s limited.”
A refugee at the protest, who asked to remain anonymous for the safety of his family, has two master’s degrees from his home country, one in political science and the other in philosophy. His wife also has a postgraduate degree, but they were forced to work in basic, low-paying jobs because that was all they could find.
He recounted years of menial labor, from farms to kitchens.
“I remember four or five months when I worked for someone but they didn’t pay [me], and I got the lowest rate of 7 or 8 Australian dollars ($5-$5.50) per hour in this difficult job,” he said. “We used to work on farms, picking and packing, and it was too hard in a muddy area[s] with this payment and without insurance, nothing, if something happened to us.
People on temporary visas also have limited access to state benefits, known as Centrelink, and state-funded medical care (Medicare), if they can access them.
“People on TPVs and SHEVs have access to Medicare and Centrelink… [but] they are not eligible for the drug benefit scheme,” Rintoul said. “People on bridging visas… cannot access Centrelink. If they have the right to work (some bridge visas do not allow employment), they can usually access Medicare, but not always.
Another protester, a refugee with schizophrenia, said he was unable to access medication because his Medicare coverage was for emergencies only and therefore did not include the drugs he needed.
“I have a lifelong health issue that I can’t do anything for except take my medication,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I’m being treated like an animal.”
pain of separation
Then there is the pain of separation from immediate family they cannot bring to Australia.
Alex, a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan, drove 14 hours from Brisbane to witness the protest.
Using a nickname for his family’s safety, he told Al Jazeera the temporary visa policy had “destroyed” his life.
“I worked hard to save money to support [my family] in good condition, he said, but because [of] separation for 10 years, they slowly, slowly, step by step they lose their feeling about me.
Alex and his family fled Afghanistan to a neighboring country around 25 years ago when the Taliban gave them three choices: convert to Sunni Islam, leave the country or let the Taliban “choose for you”.
“I [tried] many ways to find a legal way to come to Australia… with my family together,” he said. “But unfortunately all doors and options [were] locked and closed for me.
He traveled to Australia by boat in 2012 with the support of his wife.
But over the years of separation – thanks to the temporary visa – their relationship deteriorated.
“People are in there [Parliament] House… they just look like humans,” he said of the Australian government. “They look like humans[s] but their actions, the things they do, we can see they are terrible.
Campaigners say abolishing TPVs and SHEVs would be a welcome first step, but Australia needs to do more to make its immigration system more humane.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg…the iceberg of unfairness and unfairness that applies to thousands of people in the community,” Rintoul said, “Many of they live, work and pay huge amounts of taxes and GST, but manage to live on the fringes of legal society.
Rintoul points to regulations such as Direction 80, which state that applications for family reunification from people who have come to Australia by boat will be treated with the lowest priority.
Then there are refugees who have no visa at all because their visas have expired, he said. These people are barred from working or studying, or from accessing government payments and publicly funded medical care.
“I would say there are several thousand Tamils, Iranians and Afghans living in the community with expired visas…they have nothing, there is no income…they are illegal,” he said. “They rely on refugee organizations and above all they rely on their own communities.”
Sam, as his friends know him, is one of them.
He lived the better part of his life in limbo. “I was 25 [when I came]I’m 38 now,” he said, removing his cap to show his gray hair.
“I haven’t seen my family for 12 years. I lost two members of my family, I didn’t see them,” he said.
Like those of so many other refugees, her case is complicated. He was told to return to his country, but he is stateless so he cannot return “home”, he said.
In fact, after more than 10 years in Australia, Sam, like so many other refugees in the country, feels that Australia is his home.
It was a big part of the protest, organizer Arad Nik explained – to ‘tell people we are… Australians’.
“We want to share [a] a beer with all the homies in this beautiful, beautiful country,” he said, noting that refugees bring with them skills, knowledge and culture. “The refugee is not a problem, the refugee is a solution.”
But until the Australian government begins to change its policy towards refugees, it looks like many will not only be separated from their old home, but will also remain strangers in their new country.