A deafening silence in Australia’s refugee conversation

Major parties tiptoe around pressing migration issues

Marianne Dickie

Government and governance, Law, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The World

16 May 2019

Refugee policy has long been a contentious topic in Australian politics. But, despite having the perfect opportunity to address its problems, major parties have largely dodged discussing it in the election campaign, Marianne Dickie writes.

Fears of an ‘immigration election’ have ensured that the failures of Australia’s Department of Home Affairs and its Coalition Government regarding immigration policy remain unchallenged. The result has been a series of bland statements about migration policy from the major parties.

Commentators have noted the change in the way immigration – and particularly refugee issues – have been prosecuted by political parties since the Christchurch attack. Thankfully, the Prime Minister’s clumsy announcement of a population policy five days after the attack lacked the divisive rhetoric usually aimed at refugees or minority ethnic communities.

Throughout the campaign, the Coalition has carefully linked migration to population pressures, which in turn has fed into their decision to freeze humanitarian visas. The freeze on the number of humanitarian visas issued is also linked to a prioritisation of humanitarian visas granted to women. General migration policy announcements focused on the need to encourage migrant settlement in regional Australia in an attempt to address concerns of overcrowding and infrastructure in the cities.

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The opposition Labor Party (ALP) has proposed increasing the refugee intake to 27,000 by 2025 and has added some measures that will decrease the unfairness in the current treatment of refugees, including the cancellation of temporary protection. However, they remain committed to offshore processing and the retention of Nauru and Manus within that regime.

The ALP has also continued its long-term critique of the high number of temporary work visas and have simultaneously advocated the introduction of work visas that push people to regional areas.

Despite this aversion to temporary visas, Labor has announced a new one called the Long Stay Parent visa. This ten-year visa is designed to address the inability of parents to reunite with their children under the current regime.

These policy announcements have failed to raise much interest, and those who work in this area must be relieved that the major parties have managed to resist and combat language that demonises or unfairly targets specific migrant and refugee groups. Yet the same fear that has tamed the divisive rhetoric around migration has also allowed the Coalition – and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, in particular – to avoid any scrutiny of their record.

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Minister Dutton has presided over a Department that has systematically removed service to the Australian public and migrants from its operations. The inability to talk to a Departmental officer begins at the front of office of all Visa and Citizenship Offices within the Department of Home Affairs where people are met with security guards and officers directing them back to the Departmental website and phone number.

Migrants are now expected to manage their own applications through an ‘ImmiAccount’. Anecdotal accounts provide stories of interruptions to the system and the need to take screenshots while using their site to prove that the problem lay with the Department and not with applicants.

Those who manage to apply online are then left with huge delays. Resident Return visas can take up to 12 weeks. Processing of Partner visas have taken beyond 20 months. The majority of Citizenship applications have stalled with hundreds – if not thousands – waiting for over 24 months. Queues for the affordable Parent visa continue to blow out past 40 years.

The Department no longer provides processing times for Carer and Last Remaining Relative visas. The processing of the 30,000 legacy caseload of refugees continues to drag on with some receiving their first temporary protection visa six years after arriving. Yet application fees for all visa categories continue to rise despite this poor record.

All of these delays are the direct result of specific policy directives from the government. In some areas, there are caps on visas that cost less, such as the Non-contributory Parent visa. The system then deliberately places visas that cost more, over those that don’t.

If people are worried about refugees queue-jumping, there is no clearer evidence than the astounding $16,000 community-sponsored humanitarian visa, which favours refugees who can afford the fees and that are ‘job ready’. In other areas, policy directives have deliberately resulted in applications that can never reach final processing.

More on this: Children in border control and political brinkmanship

The announcement by the ALP to introduce another temporary visa to ease the wait for parents does nothing to address the time they will spend waiting for a permanent visa. It does nothing to address the deliberate freeze on citizenship applications by the government in 2017, which continues in the hope that their new citizenship legislation will eventually pass. It does nothing to address the cruel policy of processing refugee family applications last. And it does nothing to address the faulty decision-making and directives from offshore posts.

This all points to a system that is failing. The obsession with border security by the Minister and the Coalition has resulted in a Department that is unwilling and unable to make the everyday decisions that traditionally ensured migrants and Australians felt welcome.

It has resulted in a system that undermines – not builds – the fabric of Australia. Any government should be ashamed of this record. The real shame, however, is that challenging such a record will only result in a return to the divisive politics of blaming migrants and refugees for the country’s failures.

This article is part of Policy Forum’s Australian Election coverage, and published in partnership with The Australian National University.

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