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Abandon all hope the doubly persecuted people who enter by boat

When Immigration Minister Scott Morrison talks of restoring integrity to the program, he isn’t fretting about meeting international legal obligations. AAP/Lukas Coch

Whenever an immigration minister states that new laws will “restore integrity” to the immigration program it is clear what they mean is we have new ways of refusing cases and punishing the bad refugees who came the wrong way. Such is clear from reading the 118-page Bill that reintroduces the flawed Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) among other unjustifiable changes.

It is one of three Bills that make major changes to the process for assessing refugee cases, as well as adding some shock and awe to the already puritanical character provisions. This amounts to over 250 pages of changes to laws. The explanatory memorandums run to nearly 400 pages.

The volume and extent of the changes is significant but there are two common themes: punish those who arrive without a visa and make it easier to refuse cases, especially at review. The fact that we are dealing with people who are seeking protection from human rights abuses is trumped by political slogans and the pursuit of a policy that will cause harm to people.

Back to the cruel uncertainty of TPVs

The Temporary Protection Visa mark 3 is very like mark 2 from 2013, but it has extra features to make it more punitive. A reminder of what the TPV means: no family reunion at all, and no return if a person travels to see their family even in a third country.

The new version has the same “no further stay 8503 condition” attached as did the 2013 and 1999 series. This means an applicant cannot apply for any other visa except a protection visa.

However, to make a valid application for a protection visa you cannot be a person who holds or held a TPV, or one of the other temporary visas granted to boat arrivals under Labor and the current government. This means there is no application you can make except for another TPV and you must prove your refugee case all over again.

We also see a new visa, the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) created with the help of the Palmer United Party. It is more mongrel than purebred. Details of the legislation on the SHEV are not yet available, but we are told it will enable refugees to live and work in designated regional areas for five years.

Provided they make no claims for “income support” for at least 40 months, they can apply for other visa subclasses, not yet specified. Again no family reunion or travel to see family is permitted. But you must earn or learn, as study will not be considered “income support”.

It is not clear if you can change designated areas if there is no work, or what happens if there is a recession and no work is available. Previously, TPV holders were moving from country town to country town looking for work.

This also does not realistically deal with needs for English classes and maybe acquiring updated skills or having your qualification accepted for Australia. There are major differences for how occupations are assessed across the nearly 500 occupations listed in the existing 457 temporary business visa program. What happens to the refugee who is severely traumatised by their experiences and so unable to “earn or learn”?

Being just and fair gets short shrift

Other changes include making lawful the interdiction of refugees at sea and sending them elsewhere without needing to worry too much about our international legal obligations. This is clearly designed to defeat the High Court challenge to the attempt to force the Sri Lankans back to India.

The law will be changed to overcome the High Court decision that stopped 157 Sri Lankan asylum seekers being sent back to India. AAP/Brad Waugh

Another High Court challenge about the status of stateless children born here is targeted by deeming them “unauthorised maritime arrivals” - in effect, to pretend they arrived on boats and not in Australian hospital wards.

There are also changes to the refugee definition, some of which codify existing laws but others seem to be reading back the law so it is harder for a refugee to win their case. The introduction of a “fast track” system is supposed to make the process quicker. While quick is good, quality and justice should not be sacrificed just so it is quicker.

The new “fast track review process” is said to provide a mechanism of “limited review that is efficient and quick”. Fair and just are not a concern at all.

Again it is clear the government is ignoring the fact we are dealing with refugees. If we make a mistake in the case, they could be persecuted. The seriousness of the assessment of refugees is not important for this government.

This obsession with quick processing is in contrast to creating a power to cap or limit the number of protection visas granted in a year – a power that the High Court held the minister did not have when he tried to do so. The 90 day period to make a decision introduced under Prime Minister Howard will be abolished. Apparently, it is good to be quick in assessing your case, but not when we have to grant you a permanent visa.

This capping measure is unnecessary because it does not recognise that refugee movements can rise and fall over time. It would be better to make more places available, as Labor did when increasing the annual humanitarian intake to 20,000, rather than stay at 13,750 as the Coalition insists.

Many other changes remove or diminish rights of refugees and make it easier to refuse the cases.

The minister stated:

The new visa arrangements will allow the government to commence processing asylum claims of the legacy caseload. More rapid processing and streamlined review arrangements, as detailed at the election, will be implemented. Any further delays in processing or repeated processing of claims simply adds to cost and uncertainty and prevents people getting on with their lives.

In fact the TPV and SHEV create uncertainty and an inability for refugees to “get on with their lives”. The forced separation of families, maybe for over five years, is simply cruel and inhumane.

This factor alone was a major cause of anxiety and stress in the first series of the TPV. Authoritative reports prove that the forced separation and uncertainty created trauma and left people in limbo. The TPV is inhumane and should be confined to the legislative history books.

The fact that these amendments are being introduced together with tougher security laws and at a time of a heightened terror alert and public fear of attacks is not a co-incidence. Rather, it adds to the deliberate demonisation of refugees and asylum seekers by the Coalition since 1999.

The new Governor of South Australia, Hieu Van Le AO, and the new book of specialist surgeon Professor Munjed Al Muderis are just two of countless success stories of people who came by boat and made a difference to Australia and Australians. Meeting the refugees and hearing their stories helps to dissipate the fear and stereotypes perpetuated by politicians. We can but hope this learning from and about refugees will continue.

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