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Government-Palmer deal would give some refugees a stony road to possible permanency

Clive Palmer has struck a deal with the government to reintroduce temporary protection visas. AAP/Stefan Postles

Once again Clive Palmer has shown he’ll deal on Coalition legislation, at a price. And once more Immigration minister Scott Morrison has demonstrated he’ll do what it takes to “land” government’s policy.

The Palmer United Party has agreed to support the government’s bid to reintroduce temporary protection visas but only with another category of visa being set up, the bizarrely named Safe Haven Enterprise Visa. These would be temporary but they would provide the possibility – no more than that – of a road to permanent settlement.

Under the deal, all those asylum seekers currently in Australia, including people who arrived after this government was elected, would be processed. The total is around 30,000 people. Most are living in the community (without work rights) but some, including hundreds of children, are on Christmas Island.

After processing, those not found to be refugees would be sent home; the rest could apply for TPVs or SHEVs.

Under the SHEVs, people would have to move to a regional area where there was a labour shortage and which wanted them. SHEVs would be valid for five years – if a person worked for three and a half, they could apply for some other visa such as a student visa, a 457 visa, or a skilled migrant visa. They couldn’t seek a permanent protection visa.

Palmer talks up the opportunity that would be provided by SHEVs, pointing out that “some regions have critical labour shortages”. Morrison talks it down. He tried to avoid admitting directly this could be a road to permanency via a back door, instead stressing that “they will never get a permanent protection visa” (and that, he said, was the Coalition’s election commitment).

“These benchmarks of working or studying in these regional areas are very high. Our experience on resettlement for people in this situation would mean that this is a very high bar to clear,” Morrison said. “Good luck to them if they choose to do that and if they achieve it,” he added, unconvincingly.

The ability of people to walk that road would depend on regional communities and employers being willing to receive them. It would be up to these communities – the government would not be dictating to any region - and Morrison was hardly spruiking the benefits to them.

“I would urge regions to think about what they’re able to bring to the table to support people coming into their communities and to consider that carefully and to talk about it and make it an informed decision.”

TPVs are inhumane – people would be reviewed after three years and those found no longer in need of protection would be sent home, forcibly if that were necessary and possible. The TPV system means people who are genuine refugees are consigned to a life of uncertainty. There are no rights of family reunion; the person can’t leave the country and return.

On the other hand, at present all these asylum seekers are in limbo, without ability to plan for the future and surviving on minimal welfare.

The deal would enable the case load to be eventually cleared. Refugees who went onto TPVs would be able to work. The SHEVs could provide long term hope for some people, but equally they could be a cruel mirage. For those on them to have a prospect of success would require some enlightened communities and employers, and help by refugee advocates and voluntary organisations such as churches in finding places for people. It should be possible but it would be challenging.

The Morrison legislation toughens executive powers to prevent successful court challenges and also removes reference to the Refugee Convention to which we would remain signed up. “We are a sovereign country. We get to decide what our rules are and what are obligations are,” he said. “We were part of the original group of countries that signed the Refugee Convention. We know what we signed up to and those commitments are contained fully in this legislation.”

But, unfortunately, not much of the spirit is in there.

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