What’s happening to Australia’s refugees?

Update 7 April - since the time of writing, many refugees have been released in an apparent pre-election move. While this is to be welcomed, it appears that arbitrary decisions have been made about who to release and refugees have not been given sufficient notice or support. For more:

Inside the Park hotel in Melbourne, Australia and the world saw the stark reality of the nation’s approach to refugees. Cousins Mehdi and Adnan, who fled persecution in Iran as teenagers and have now grown up together in detention centres. Or Joy, who has survived shark bites, sickness, and beatings since he fled Bangladesh but still dreams of opening a restaurant in Australia. 

Jamal, having left his homeland when his work with Western forces in Afghanistan drew Taliban attention, was driven to such despair after five years in detention offshore that he set himself on fire. But he now looks for the signs of pro-refugee supporters outside the hotel every day: “the people who give me strength”.

Average time of detention: nearly two years

At the time of writing, Mehdi had just gained his freedom after nine years in detention. Let that sink in: Australia held a 15 year old refugee in detention until he was 24.

But more than 1,500 people remain detained in Australian immigration detention facilities. The average period spent in onshore immigration detention is 689 days, compared with 55 days in the United States and 14 days in Canada.  About 32 people were still detained in the Park Hotel at the end of January, according to the SMH. Meanwhile, according to the government’s latest figures, revealed in Senate estimates, 107 people – 81 refugees and 26 asylum seekers – were still held on Nauru. Though they have been released into the Nauru community, they cannot leave the island.  As of September 30, 2021, 278 asylum seekers and refugees were held in Australia’s locked immigration detention network (The remaining 1181 were mostly those whose visas had been cancelled on character grounds and are awaiting deportation).

Many of these people are recognised refugees to whom Australia owes protection - and they have no clear idea why they are being held when others have been released.  

Life in limbo 

Bright kids, such as Mehdi, have had almost no access to education and proper health care - another breach of the binding international convention on the rights of children

Although the cohort had all been prioritised for medical care, they report medical attention is often slow. Mehdi said he’d had an untreated toothache for months. 

In October, a COVID-19 outbreak ripped through the hotel, infecting about half of those detained, and many report long, feverish hours passing without access to medical attention, even, initially, Panadol. 

Joy was so sick he tried to call an ambulance himself. “I was shaking, I couldn’t stand up. Still, they made me wait six hours for the Panadol and that’s all I got. My life is a room. We can’t breathe in here anymore.”

Jamal, who does receive treatment for his burns, also spoke of long waits for medical attention during the outbreak. “It’s hurting me,” he said of his detention. The windows of his room don’t open, and he can only faintly hear the rain outside. “I was young, and I get old here”.

Home Affairs said people in its detention facilities “are treated in accordance with human rights standards” and COVID protocols are being followed. 

“The health care and range of services provided to detainees ... is broadly commensurate with healthcare available to the Australian community through the public health system,” a spokesperson said.

Genuine refugees face growing delays in processing times

The majority of so-called 'illegal maritime arrivals' are found to be genuine refugees: as at December 2021, of 28,347 finalised applications (including after review) 18,909 were granted, while 9,438 were refused. Nearly 3,000 applications were still outstanding.

But these applications are not being processed in a timely fashion - and delays are growing at an alarming rate. For example, the average time taken for the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) to process appeals against visa cancellations has more than tripled in two years. In 2020-2021 the average time to overturn a decision to cancel a family visa was 590 days, up from 136 days in 2018-2019; and to uphold a cancellation was 319 days, up from 93.

According to the AAT, some of these delays were caused by the need to wait for appeals to the courts against cancellation on character grounds, while the pandemic and increased lodgements of refugee and migration cases have exacerbated the problem.

Zaki's story - denied school at 17

And thousands are also in Australia on bridging and temporary protection visas, including Afghan refugee Zaki Haidari. When he was 17 Zaki’s mother arranged for him to be smuggled out of Afghanistan. His father, who was their village’s first-ever doctor, had just been taken by the Taliban and his older brother beheaded for going to university. The family – part of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority – expected the Taliban to come for Zaki next. 

Zaki did survive, after a harrowing three months in the hands of people smugglers, but the journey wasn’t over. It was late 2013 and he had arrived just after a crucial policy change in Australia – asylum seekers who arrived by boat could no longer apply for protection. 

Since 1976, about 80 per cent of those seeking asylum in Australia by boat have been found to be genuine refugees, according to analysis by the Refugee Council of Australia. 

Zaki was treated as an adult when he landed in detention at 17 and couldn’t go to school. “My grandfather couldn’t go to school as a Hazara,” he says. “My dad was the first generation to go but here I was in a country that prides itself on human rights and suddenly, I couldn’t go to school again, even when [later released on a bridging visa] I was offered a scholarship.” 

Zaki knows he was lucky when he arrived on Christmas Island. He only spent a few months in detention before being released to live in Sydney. But that became three years without the right to work under a bridging visa he prayed would be reissued every six months, scraping by on Centrelink, sharing rent with other refugees and often skipping meals to cover expensive train fares to English classes. 

“I was getting so weak, I thought I’d have to stop going but friend of a friend bought me a monthly train fare instead. There’s been lots of little moments of generosity like that. The government hasn’t been kind, but the people of Australia are. When they know you, they try to help you,” he said.

Zaki now works full-time as a refugee advocate. But he still has no idea how long he will get to stay in Australia, even with the government’s recent assurance that Afghans on temporary visas won’t be sent back while the “security situation there remains dire”. 

And he can’t apply to have his family relocated. Before the Taliban retook Kabul last year, Zaki had supported his younger siblings financially through university. “Now I have put them in danger by encouraging them to follow in the footsteps of our father and brother,” he said.

People are detained on average 48 days in the US and 24 in Canada while 90 per cent in UK’s immigration system are held less than six months. As of September 2021, Australia’s own average is almost two years (689 days). 

That’s the highest it’s ever been, and, when you exclude other visa cases from the numbers, the average detention time for asylum seekers and refugees is much higher.