Government and governance, International relations | Australia

8 September 2021

As chaos unfolds in Afghanistan, ministerial directions that place family visa applications sponsored by asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat at the lowest priority level are impacting those who need the most help, Marianne Dickie writes.

As the world has watched the terrible situation unfold in Afghanistan, calls to resettle people in Afghanistan who worked for Australia or are vulnerable to danger grew louder.

It is easy to see why – the news of the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and the dangerous reality facing Afghanistan are heartbreaking. Many have sighed with relief to hear that no asylum seekers from Afghanistan will be returned at the moment, and the government sought to evacuate staff and some Afghan citizens.

While welcome, these measures are hardly enough to make up for the behaviour of successive governments in Australia, which have been increasingly cruel in their treatment of Afghan asylum seekers, including those who have been recognised as refugees and those who have lived and worked in Australia for many years.

Asylum seekers have been coming to Australia from Afghanistan since the United States’ intervention in the Middle East that followed the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in 2001.

In response, the Howard government developed offshore processing venture on the islands of Nauru and Manus Island, called ‘the Pacific Solution’. With a lot of advocacy and hard work, the majority of asylum seekers detained there were eventually granted refugee status and settled in New Zealand and Australia. The last refugees left Nauru in February 2008.

More on this: Podcast: Julian Burnside – Changing attitudes towards refugees and asylum seekers

But in July 2010, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s government announced it would resume offshore processing, and in 2013, returning Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s government further cemented these policies, by stating that all asylum seekers who came by boat would go to Nauru or Manus Island for processing, and that none of them, granted refugee status or not, would ever be able to be resettled in Australia.

For those provided a refugee visa in Australia, the cruelty and punishment continued. Later in 2013, the then Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison issued a ministerial direction, Direction 62, which set out the order for processing of family visas.

The direction placed family visa applications sponsored by asylum seekers that arrived by boat as the lowest priority. This was challenged in 2017 by an Afghan interpreter who had helped Australian forces in Afghanistan, but his case was finally determined through ministerial intervention.

The current iteration of these rules is Direction 80, introduced by the then Minister David Coleman, which continues to place applications for family visas by former asylum seekers who arrived by boat at the end of the queue. This means wait times for processing family visas for these people have extended beyond seven years.

This is by design. It is telling, for instance that despite the term ‘illegal maritime arrival’ having no part in any immigration legislation, it is used to define the cohort placed last on the official departmental website. This is because it is a term set out in the Home Affairs policy manual as one that staff must use – despite the fact it has no legal standing.

More on this: A way forward on refugees

In 2020, the Refugee Council noted that some family applications by refugees who arrived by boat have been languishing in the queue since 2013.

For those coming from Afghanistan, the possible future outcome of these applications is now unknown, with no embassy staff in Afghanistan and the Taliban in control, it is impossible to imagine orderly family migration could proceed as normal.

In 2014, then Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison also announced the implementation of temporary protection visas to resolve the caseload of around 30,000 onshore asylum applications.

These visas including a Safe Haven Protection Visa, which was designed to push refugees into the regions to work or study for at least 48 months of their five-year temporary visa. It was also designed to further restrict the future for these refugees.

Minister Morrison declared the threshold for moving from this temporary visa to a permanent visa would be “a very high bar”. The very high bar he was referring to came from the limited range of visas refugees could apply for at the end of their five years, if they did meet the mandatory work or study requirements. Refugees who did not meet this criteria were only eligible to apply for another five-year visa.

As well as those trying to flee Afghanistan amidst tragedy right now, it is this cohort of refugees, who already live in Australia and can now see no prospect of returning, who are directly impacted by the events in Afghanistan. They are the ones relying on the Morrison government for compassion at this time.

Sadly, the actions of the past 20 years have shown that people trying to flee to Australia, even those who have already made it here – no matter how much they may have offered Australia or may have the potential to offer Australia – may have little to hope for in finding that compassion.

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