After fleeing Afghanistan, I arrived in Australia before July 19, 2013, when the policy regarding people arriving by sea changed. An unfair and totally arbitrary distinction is made between someone who arrived in Australia before 19 July 2013, who can now be granted permanent protection, and someone who arrived after that date.
Things got much worse for those who arrived after that date, when Australia started shipping people coming to Nauru and Manus Island by sea, including families, telling them they would never be allowed to settle in Australia.
The ruthlessness of that policy, which continues to this day, has divided families and ruined lives. I know of families who, because of the complexity and risk associated with fleeing persecution, arrived at different times. A father I know has not seen his children for years because he was taken to Nauru, while his wife and children who arrived in 2012 stayed in Australia on temporary protection visas. The father has been told he will never call Australia home and that his only option is to settle in New Zealand without his family.
The unfairness and cruelty of these decisions and policies is inexplicable to me.
One of the reasons so many people are still applying for bridging visas pending government decisions on whether they will receive protection in Australia is because of the serious flaws of the Abbott government’s so-called accelerated process, when TPVs and SHEVs introduced for the first time. This process prompted people to rush their applications and then set limits on what they could appeal.
I was shocked… by the brutality of those words, driven by immigration policies that continue to harm people seeking refuge in Australia by sea.
There were limited legal services at the time, forcing people to use unqualified agents, further contributing to lengthy appeals processes. In the meantime, people cannot move on with their lives, even though in some cases children have gone to school, graduated and yet are forbidden from studying when they turn 18.
Others have started a business and employ people, but cannot apply for a loan. And there’s the heartbreak of not being able to visit families or loved ones and not being able to bring relatives to Australia.
And every day it is painful to see people who sought asylum around the time I did and still suffer after 10 years in Nauru or Papua New Guinea. They are trapped in a terrible situation because of a deterrent policy and system that tortures them based on how they arrived.
There are people who lost hope and took their own lives. Where is Australia’s humanity? The Labor government only last month redesignated Nauru as a site for offshore processing, while the people clearly need care. There are only about 60 people left in Nauru and 90 in PNG. People have been brought to the brink of despair. Just last week, two refugees took extreme action, stitching their lips together in protest, and Amnesty International Australia and the UN again demanded the immediate evacuation of people trapped in these places.
Sadly, there are many others, over 1000 people, who have been forced to live in offshore detention for years in Nauru and PNG, many of them families, who have been returned to Australia for health reasons. But they are kept in limbo on restrictive bridging visas or in community detention, still told they will never be able to settle in Australia despite being found refugees.
Some of the young children held in Nauru are now young adults who have dreams and want to move on with their lives. Some have completed high school in Australia but are not allowed to go to university. Others in community detention cannot even work.
We all yearn for security and a future. At a minimum, Australia must give everyone who already deserves protection under the Refugee Convention a permanent home in Australia, regardless of how or when they arrived.
Australia must stop denying people the right to work and study while applying for asylum and support them in finding permanent resettlement solutions in a timely manner. And for those abandoned after years in offshore detention, Australia should immediately close the regional processing center on Nauru and bring anyone left behind in Nauru and in PNG to Australia so they can live in the community while receiving medical care they need.
If Australia is to shape the world for the better, it must start at home.
Zaki Haidari is a refugee campaigner with Amnesty International Australia.
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