This week is Refugee Week, “Australia’s peak annual activity to raise awareness about the issues affecting refugees and celebrate the positive contributions made by refugees to Australian society” and today (20 June) is World Refugee Day.
The event is organised by the Refugee Council of Australia and the major sponsors are the Victorian Multicultural Commission and a not-for-profit humanitarian settlement service based in New South Wales. This year’s theme is Restoring Hope.
You have to admire the Refugee Council for sticking with ‘Restoring Hope’. Three weeks ago, the Federal Government told the council it would cut its core funding of $140,000.
This decision follows other direct or indirect cuts to services for asylum seekers.
In the May budget, the Federal Government said it would merge the Refugee Review Tribunal, the Migration Review Tribunal, the Administrative Review Tribunal, the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and the Classification Review Board. The merger will happen by July 2015. Clearly, there are many synergies between rating films and deciding whether someone is a refugee or not.
From 31 March 2014, the Federal Government also ended legal aid for people who arrive in Australia – via boat (now impossible!) or plane – without a valid visa and seek Australia’s protection. The Immigration Advice and Application Assistance Scheme (IAAAS) had provided asylum seekers access to a government-funded migration agent.
So, if the Department of Immigration turned down someone’s application for a protection visa, then the IAAS scheme would fund an appeal to the Refugee Review Tribunal, the statutory, independent body that reviews government visa decisions. (Since mid-2013, the tribunal no longer has its own staff researching events in troubled nations but must rely on information collected by Department of Foreign Affairs).
Asylum seekers can now represent themselves or seek help from a sympathetic lawyer or church group like the Salvation Army. The Federal Government fact sheet helpfully advises: “You can continue to find and pay for your own migration agent at any time”.
This morning, I attended an open day at the Refugee Review Tribunal in Melbourne, an event that was part of Refugee Week. I was curious to know who still applied to this body because people in offshore detention are not allowed to.
An audience of about 30 watched a mock hearing that featured Charlie Powles (one of the 130 tribunal members across Australia) and three others who played the roles of interpreter, applicant and applicant’s agent.
The case was fictional, we were told, but based on factual circumstances. A woman came to Australia from China on a student visa. She did a hospitality course. When that finished and her visa was about to run out, she applied for protection on the grounds that she was a Christian and feared persecution and worse if she returned to China. The department refused her application and she appealed to the tribunal.
It was interesting to hear the questions and answers, the sharp English and the more lyrical Mandarin.
‘What do you know about Jesus’ life?’ the tribunal member asked.
‘He was born in December and died on the cross and he now should be in heaven,’ the applicant answered via a translator.
‘What can you tell me about the people in Jesus’ life?’
And so on.
I did not think things looked too good for the fictional applicant. If she failed here, she would need to pay a $1604 fee. Most appeals fail. Her only recourse then would be to appeal for “Ministerial intervention” by getting in touch with Scott Morrison, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection. Apparently the Minister does intervene, positively, on occasion.
The mock hearing was well constructed and illustrated the most common case now before the tribunal: a person who wants protection but arrived in Australia, via plane, with a valid visa. From July 2013 until April 2014, the tribunal heard 2300 such cases. About 20 per cent succeeded. In the same period, the tribunal heard 500 cases from what staff called “unauthorized maritime arrivals”. About 38 per cent of these appeals were successful but if you break the stats down by country of origin the story shatters somewhat.
In this period, 102 people from Afghanistan appealed a departmental decision and the tribunal found in favour of most of them (73 people) but 650 people from China applied and only 59 (9 per cent) were successful. You can find detailed country-by-country stats on the tribunal website while summaries of interesting RRT decisions are published here in Precis or on Austlii. The most recent Precis includes “an applicant from the Republic of Korea, a Malaysian citizen who owes money to loan sharks and the relocation for a Shi’a Muslim and Pashtun of the Bangash tribe”.
The tribunal is dealing with a finite group of “unauthorized maritime arrivals”. Namely, these are people who arrived by boat in Australia before August 2012 and applied for refugee status. There are still about 2000 outstanding appeals from this group of people.
But there is another, much bigger group, who remain in a horrendous limbo. These are the 20,000-plus people who arrived by boat between August 2012 and July 2013, people caught up in the former Labor government’s ‘No Advantage’ pre-election policy. The ABC published a good summary of this policy last year but I had not realised just how many people still remain in this awful suspended state here in Australia. Some are in detention onshore but most are in the community on a variety of bridging visas. None of their claims have been processed and our government is yet to make an announcement about what it will do with them.
Happy World Refugee Day.