Refugee week: five steps the Government should take

Refugee Week 2021: Australia is watching the unfolding fate of the Biloela family, leading us to reflect on the harm that our Government has caused - and continues to cause - to vulnerable people.

Ironically, refugee week began in Australia in 1986 before spreading to other countries. Fast forward 35 years and we have the dubious distinction of years of international condemnation for our illegal detention of asylum seekers and refugees.

Compounding this, we routinely separate families; our family reunification processes have been labelled 'discriminatory' by the UN; and advocates say refugees are being overlooked in our vaccine rollout.

Family separation

Our Government’s current policies split families, husbands from their wives and children from their parents, often permanently.  These policies cause immense harm, especially to children — harm which may never be fully repaired.  

Permanent or protracted family separation is not only inhumane. It is also contrary to our obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

Why are families being separated?

  • A family member may fail the character test and be shifted to a remote centre or deported without notice. This may lead to protracted, indefinite detention in remote locations, under poor conditions, and with limited access to technology and communications. Some people have been removed to places where their lives are in danger, where their family members are unlikely ever to be able to visit.      
  • A family member may be unable to re-apply for a visa, and thus be permanently prevented from being re-united with their family. And this doesn't affect just a handful of people: 30,137 people were removed from Australia following visa cancellation between 2015 and April 2020. 
  • Even in cases where they are eventually re-uinted, families may have faced long periods of separation during one member's wait for a visa. The average waiting time has been 978 days, and over 100 people have waited more than five years. 

More: Family separation and the character test

Together in safety

In April the Human Rights Law Centre issued a lengthy report on the Australian Government’s separation of families seeking safety — that is, refugees and asylum seekers. The executive summary of the Together in safety report comments:

"The Australian Government uses the ties that bind families together – the love a mother has for her child, a person has for their partner, a brother has for his sister – to try to prevent people from exercising their right to seek safety."

The report notes that this approach is:

  • deeply harmful to the health of the people ripped from their families;
  • illegal, as a violation of Australia’s binding international legal obligations; and
  • unparalleled among comparable countries.

CCL joins with the Human Rights Law Centre to call on the Australian Government to take the below five steps and to stop using family separation against people seeking safety:

  1. End discrimination against refugees based on how they arrived in Australia, by offering a consistent pathway to family reunion and ending the use of family separation as a tool for punishment.
  2. Shut down offshore processing, to ensure families are never again deliberately torn apart by Australian Government policy, and that family members in Australia do not risk being returned to offshore detention in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. 
  3. Grant permanent status to long-term temporary visa holders and others living in limbo, so that all people owed protection in Australia can have the same access to family visas as other long term residents, and the certainty and stability to thrive.
  4. Stop the endless deprioritisation of family reunion applications from refugees who arrived by boat and drastically improve processing times, by replacing the current visa processing rules with a policy that does not perpetuate indefinite separation for some Australian residents, and by processing applications within acceptable timeframes in line with comparable international standards.
  5. Create a new humanitarian family reunion visa stream, available to all refugees regardless of visa status or mode of arrival, which is fair, fast and accessible and which reflects an inclusive understanding of family.What can I do?

Family reunification 'discriminatory': UNHCR

In a recent submission to a Senate inquiry, the UNHCR urged Australia to remove ‘discriminatory’ policies which restrict refugees’ access to family reunification processes, describing them as ‘punitive’, ‘cruel’, and contrary to Australia’s obligations under international law. 

In particular, it raised concerns that high costs, restrictive eligibility criteria and “onerous" documentation requirements were obstacles for refugees. 

More: UNHCR slams Australia's approach in Senate inquiry

'Overlooked' in vaccine rollout

Meanwhile, advocates fear refugees and asylum seekers risk being ‘overlooked’ in Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Because they lack established relationships with healthcare professionals, they may miss vital information about the rollout, and they may be afraid to come forward due to concerns about their visa status. Experts point out that COVID-19 vaccinations are important for refugees and asylum seekers, who are more likely to have underlying health conditions that make them vulnerable to the coronavirus and may require vaccination as a condition for resettlement in other countries.

What can I do?

As an individual it's easy to feel powerless, but there are many ways to get involved.