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Back to the future on temporary protection visas

The Coalition’s has proposed to return to temporary protection visas to clear the backlog of asylum seekers awaiting processing in Australia. AAP/Steve Lillebuen

For me, the TPV is a prison. Our life is without hope, or purpose. The simplest thing that a person wants in his life is hope. Without hope, life is meaningless. - Iraqi temporary protection visa holder, 2003

The Coalition’s policy to “clear the backlog” of 30,000 asylum seekers in Australia on bridging visas by reintroducing temporary protection visas (TPVs) proposes a return to a Howard government policy, but with some new twists.

First proposed by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in 1998, the TPV was condemned by then-immigration minister Phillip Ruddock as “totally unacceptable and quite extreme”, before adopting the measure in 1999.

The TPV regime operated from 1999 to 2007, and placed asylum seekers arriving by boat later found to be refugees on three year “rolling” temporary visas. This was explicitly conceived as punitive form of deterrent to asylum seekers, which denied them the certainty of permanent settlement.

The Coalition’s policy would go a step further, applying the TPV retrospectively to those already in Australia on bridging visas. It is therefore worth revisiting the impacts of the former TPV regime. Ten years ago, as the government argued with its critics, a colleague and I took a different approach, conducting interviews with TPV holders themselves. The findings should give anyone pause for supporting a return to the policy.

One key feature of the TPV should first be recognised: as a so-called “deterrence” measure it was a clear failure. By denying family reunion rights, the TPV led to a new pattern of boat arrivals, with women and children now accompanying men on perilous boat voyages.

Boat arrivals consequently spiked sharply from 1999 until the start of the “Pacific Solution”. 2001 saw the largest number of arrivals then recorded at 5516. This new pattern had tragic consequences in the case of the SIEV X in October 2001, when a boat overloaded with women and children sank in international waters. Women and children featured disproportionately among the 353 deaths.

Once in Australia, a “hope deficit” was evident among our respondents. Forced separation from close family members, and the threat of repatriation after three years caused an epidemic of psychological problems among TPV holders. The denial of family reunion rights was a common source of psychological distress:

This government is cruel to us…When will I see my mother and sisters? My dad is sick and wants his wife and children together in one place with him. He fears that he will die before seeing the rest of the family.

A 2006 study by the University of New South Wales found TPV holders had dramatically higher levels of anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder when compared to permanent protection visa holders, despite similar backgrounds and experiences. Many were found to live in a state of “chronic anticipatory stress” caused by ongoing uncertainty over their visa status.

For those living on TPVs, the policy of denying hope and certainty was seen as an extended form of punishment:

Our future and destiny are unknown. We don’t have any freedom, we are out of detention but it’s like being in an open prison.

Facing the prospect of “rolling” periods of temporary protection, TPV holders were unable to put down roots, and described their status as an ongoing limbo: “we feel that our life is destroyed because it’s without hope. We don’t plan anything for the future”.

Psychologists working with TPVs complained that their standard counselling methods for trauma victims were not working: without meaningful concepts of “hope” and “the future”, the task of promoting recovery proved impossible. Worryingly, this extended to the children of TPV holders. As another interviewee reported:

…a teacher asked one of my children about his hopes and wishes for the future in Australia. My son told her that he doesn’t wish for anything, because he only lives temporarily in Australia.

Contrary to ideas of “cashed up” asylum seekers jumping queues, interviews revealed Australia had usually been chosen as the more affordable option: cheaper than the better-known route of seeking asylum in Europe. Before their arrival, TPV holders had been routinely misled by people smugglers, and many had poor information about their rights and likely outcomes.

The study also found that TPV holders found welfare dependence especially difficult.

…every refugee hopes to work, and the allowance from Centrelink is like an illness, it kills us slowly, makes us reliant on others; we lose the spirit of living, building, and hoping.

Nonetheless, TPV refugees reported positive experiences of ordinary Australians.

I was welcomed by the Australians in all the places that I went to: Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne. Only the government didn’t want us there and is punishing us. When will the punishment stop?

With the ALP government’s “no advantage” policy likely to delay status determinations of this same group for years, both parties are in a race to the bottom. A better solution lies in funding United Nations processing centres adequately in regional transit countries, creating a proper regional queue for the first time, and taking from it in our annual offshore quota.

Australia’s failure to negotiate this has itself created perverse incentives for asylum seekers to take boats. This too would undermine the people smugglers’ model, with none of the human cost as vulnerable people are scapegoated to our increasingly harsh domestic political contest.

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