Australia’s notorious offshore processing policies for people seeking asylum have been rightly condemned around the world. Observers have expressed concern for the predicament of those left languishing for years in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, initially in detention, and then later within the community. Many have wondered, with astonishment, how Australia could pursue a policy so fundamentally at odds with international law. That the United Kingdom is now considering a similar approach defies belief, and it would almost certainly be struck down as unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights. The Trump administration also sought multiple ways of keeping would-be refugees out of the country, at times trying to pass off deals with other governments as “Safe Third Country” agreements.
Whereas Australia has sought to put asylum seekers out of sight and out of mind by moving them offshore, it has simultaneously created another cohort of refugees who are stuck in limbo within the Australian community. They remain almost invisible, trapped in a state of legal and emotional uncertainty. They are part of a cruel and arbitrary process that is destined to keep them “temporary” forever.
With more than 20 million refugees worldwide, this is a global challenge that will not simply go away. So it’s essential to understand how different countries’ current approaches are working, or failing. In Australia, men, women, and children who have fled some of the world’s most brutal regimes and violent conflicts now find themselves vilified, scapegoated, and unable to settle in the country.
Caught up in the conservative government’s campaign to “stop the boats,” these refugees, known as the “legacy caseload,” arrived in Australia between August 12, 2013 and January 1, 2014, and entered a system designed to keep them in perpetual uncertainty.
When they first arrived from places like Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq, they were denied their individual identities and humanity and given a number – based on when their boat arrived – rather than addressed by their names. They were not described as people, or refugees, or survivors, but were labelled “illegals” and “unauthorized maritime arrivals.” This was despite the fact that they had done nothing wrong. They were exercising a fundamental human right, and one protected by international law – namely, the right to seek asylum from persecution.
They were put through identity checks, health checks, and security checks. They were detained in Australia, often moved from one center to another in the dead of night, seemingly designed to disrupt any friendships or sense of community. They were then parked on bridging visas with varying rights to work or study, subject to a vague “code of behaviour” – something that applied only to them – with penalties including getting hauled back into detention or even deported. They were forced to wait, sometimes for years, until an immigration minister actually permitted them to apply for asylum.
Seven years on, some of these people are still waiting for a first interview to explain their asylum claim. This is far from the fair, efficient and expeditious process that is considered best practice. Yet others are waiting for a decision on that claim. And yet others have been granted a temporary protection visa that has now expired, and they need to re-apply. As Shaun Hanns, a former official in Australia’s immigration department, has said the whole process is a “waste of taxpayer money to torment people, to not impact on the ultimate outcome in any meaningful way anyway.”
The sad irony is that most of these people have been found by Australian government officials to be refugees in need of the country’s protection. But unlike the refugees whom Australia has chosen to resettle from overseas, directly from camps or urban settlements, these refugees are denied permanent protection because they arrived by boat. Instead, they can seek either a three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) if they agree to live and work or study in a regional area. They’re not allowed to bring their family to Australia, which means they are separated from husbands, wives, children, fathers, and mothers indefinitely. Many suffer from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder or other psychological distress, and find it very difficult to adjust, especially without relatives here to support them. Not unlike The Dreamers in the United States, these refugees in Australia have no path to permanency and endure the anxiety of uncertainty. It’s very hard to build a new life when you’re living with the constant fear that you might be sent home, because you have to keep re-applying for protection.
Whether by willful design or wanton neglect, Australia’s temporary protection policy is cruel. Amid constantly shifting goalposts, most of these people have experienced destitution – forbidden for long periods from working or studying, and given minimal welfare (the rate is below Australia’s already-low Newstart benefit for unemployed citizens). Even during COVID-19, the government has staunchly refused to extend them social welfare support – something that could have been done quietly and non-politically.
All these circumstances have also conspired to keep these people quiet.
Until now. In a new series by the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, titled Temporary (including an eight-episode narrative podcast co-produced with the Centre for Ideas and Guardian Australia), some of these survivors tell their stories. They explain how, forced to leave their homes and families, they endured frightening journeys in search of safety, only to find themselves in Australia in a perpetual legal limbo.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes “limbo” as “a region supposed to exist on the border of Hell,” and a “condition of neglect or oblivion to which persons or things are consigned when regarded as … useless.” That’s how it feels when you are kept in a permanent state of temporariness. It’s why so many in the legacy caseload experience “lethal hopelessness,” resulting from an “excruciating, insurmountable and unendurable uncertainty.” Dozens have ended their life, more have self-harmed, and more still have seen their mental health deteriorate to debilitating levels.
As the personal stories of Temporary lay bare, temporary protection is not a humane, workable or sustainable approach. Temporary protection breaks people. As Sarah Dale, the director of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, says: “They didn’t break under ISIS. But they are breaking in our country now.”
This practice of keeping refugees in a state of perpetual limbo, never certain of their fate, must come to an end – in Australia, and wherever else it is being practiced.