Asylum seeker bridging visas: experts respond

Asylum seekers rest in Nauru accommodation. Many new arrivals will be given bridging visas and processed onshore. AAP/Department of Immigration

The federal government has announced new visa measures as part of its asylum seeker policy.

Bridging visas will be issued to refugees who have been processed onshore, as part of the “no advantage” principle recommended by the Houston expert panel in August this year.

Immigration minister Chris Bowen said the sharp increase in asylum seeker arrivals meant it would not be possible to process everyone offshore. Refugees on the visas will not be allowed to work until they have waited as long as they would have had they been processed on Nauru or Manus Island. They will be able to access limited welfare benefits from Centrelink.

Bowen said refugees processed onshore could still be moved to detention on Nauru or Manus Island at a later date.

A panel of refugee experts respond below.

Alison Gerard, Discipline Coordinator and Senior Lecturer, Justice Studies, Charles Sturt University

International evidence shows that moving asylum seekers out of detention and into the community without adequate access to rights and entitlements merely fosters destitution. It is an underlying cause of sharply deteriorating health among asylum seekers. It creates a supply of illegal labourers and exposes asylum seekers to exploitation and harm in workplaces. It outsources basic government services to charities and creates a tiered system of welfare, undermining the legitimacy of the international right to asylum.

In the UK, asylum seekers receive a portion of the entitlements of other welfare recipients. This has led to poor housing, limited access to health care, isolation and stress. Malta’s version of community detention has meant asylum seekers are clustered in remote areas of Malta, far from amenities and services. These policies segregate asylum seekers, who are already misrepresented as criminals from distinct racial groups. This framework fails to foster any other perception, with low levels of interaction between host and asylum seeker populations.

For women asylum seekers, who may be more likely to have caring responsibilities, poor access to entitlements is likely to be widely felt. Allowances may have to stretch further, the special needs of pregnant or lactating women may be compromised.

Melissa Phillips, Assistant Editor, Journal of Intercultural Studies, University of Melbourne

Simply repeating the mantra “no advantage” and “breaking the people smugglers’ business model”, as Immigration Minister Chris Bowen does on a regular basis, has unsurprisingly resulted in an incoherent and patch work policy response.

As The Conversation’s Expert Panel recommended, responses to asylum seekers must be regionally implemented and guided by international legal obligations. With a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Australia should also be increasingly mindful of showing leadership and being a good international citizen in refugee matters. Sadly, continuing to perpetuate the myth that there is an orderly resettlement queue, Australia is instead now building its own imaginary “queue” in camps in Nauru and Manus Island of uncertain time limits and unknown outcomes.

Closer to home, by implementing bridging visas that will leave asylum seekers in legal and personal limbo, Australia is set to create a TPV-like regime that punishes people for seeking asylum – a decision which most definitely goes against the spirit of the Refugee Convention.

There was certainly cause for optimism when the Houston Panel included an increase to the resettlement program as part of its package of recommendations. Now that the 30-day money back guarantee period has lapsed on the Houston Report, the reality of what we have traded off in return is starting to become apparent. Most especially, the “no advantage” principle remains empty rhetoric.

Julian Burnside, Adjunct Professor, Australian Catholic University

The proposed bridging visas are not as bad as temporary protection visas (TPVs). There were two aspects of TPVs that were particularly obnoxious. The first was that the person holding the visa couldn’t confidently put down roots in the Australian community, and that will also be a feature of these new bridging visas. If the person has a fairly confident view of their refugee status they could start making a home here under the new arrangements – but if the person can’t work in the meantime, that’s still tricky.

The second objectionable feature of TPVs was that they prohibited family reunion, and that became a distinct encouragement for people to get on boats to use people smugglers. Typically, you had the man of the family here on a TPV and the women and children could only be reunited with the their husband by using people smugglers. Holding a TPV prevented family reunion by any other means. The Siev-X was a powerful demonstration of that problem: on 19 October 2001, Siev-X sank and 353 people drowned. Most of them were women and children whose husbands/fathers were in Australia on TPVs.

You may see a similar problem arising now from the fact that refugee status is going to be deferred four or five years in implementation of the “no advantage” test. What that will mean is that even if you are a fair dinkum refugee you will stay here forbidden to work, not able to get a protection visa, and therefore not able to get family reunion. If you want your family to join you then their only way of getting here is to use a smuggler.

Sri Lankan asylum seekers line up on a ship as they arrive at Bungus port, near Padang, West Sumatra. EPA

Dr James Jupp, Adjunct Associate Professor, ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences

The government has set out on the wrong path, and they’ve reached a stage where they really don’t know what to do. The wrong path is to continue the central role of mandatory detention, which has not taken account of the possibility that there might be a sudden, substantial increase in people coming due to situations in another country. That is what has happened with the Sri Lankan boost.

Now that the war is over in Sri Lanka, it appears a lot of people, particularly Tamils, aren’t happy with the resulting situation and are leaving. I don’t think we took that into account and we didn’t have the facilities ready for interning people.

So it’s a case of not thinking at the time, what are we going to do with them if we can’t lock them up somewhere safely? Of course we shouldn’t be thinking of that at all; we should think about what we are going to do to process these people in the terms of the UN Refugee Convention.

When it comes to Sri Lankan refugees, the immigration department insists that either they haven’t been individually persecuted or they’re “economic refugees”. They don’t allow for the third and fourth possibilities. The third is that the asylum seekers’ assessment of the situation is that there’s no future for the Tamils in Sri Lanka as a whole. The fourth is that they have relatives in Australia and they wish to reunite with them because those relatives are safe and comfortable and the people in Sri Lanka are not.

So to set up the alternative that you either have been persecuted or you’re just an economic refugee is a false dichotomy. In the past, the humanitarian program has always allowed for people who have not necessarily been individually persecuted but who have come from a social situation which is disadvantageous to them for political reasons. That’s what the post-war situation is in the eye of some Sri Lankans. This view resulted from the serious massacre of great numbers of civilians in the last period of the war and the destruction and occupation of many Tamil villages in the three years that followed.

We have in fact sent back several hundred people to Sri Lanka who we feel are not genuine refugees. That suggests we should be treating those we haven’t sent back as though they are genuine refugees.

Sharon Pickering, Professor of Criminology, Monash University

On the evidence, the bulk of government activity on refugees since the expert panel recommendations were handed down would seem to have strengthened the people smuggler’s business model. If we look at the outcomes in terms of increased arrivals this is one of the few fair conclusions we can draw.

If the government and the expert panel had consulted the available evidence, it would have been at least foreseeable that many of these issues would have come to pass. They could have seen this coming.

Ramping up a person’s already precarious legal and social status in no way benefits the Australian community or the individual involved. Threatening people who have lost everything and risked everything seems to fly in the face of common sense.

The principle of no advantage is increasingly being shown to have no basis. It’s been shown to be a deeply flawed conception of what is actually occurring.