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Right to work, change of policy and Sri Lankan boat asylum seekers

By Dilini Withanalage - posted Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The end of the war between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberation Tigers of the Tamil Elam (LTTE) in 2009 increased the numbers arriving by boat to seek asylum in Australia. Ever since, the complexity of the challenges faced by these Sri Lankan asylum seekers has increased considerably.

My PhD research into Sri Lankan asylum seekers who have arrived by boat living in the Australian community on Bridging Visas sheds light on the experiences of those who have recently been granted work rights.

The participants in the study are subject to the policy announced on 13 August 2012 which reintroduced the offshore processing of asylum seekers on Nauru and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island. Having been released from detention centres under Bridging Visa E (Subclass 050), they have, since January 2014, been governed by the "Code of Behaviour" that ensures 'appropriate behaviour' for asylum seekers in the community.


According to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) there are approximately 30,500 people in Australia who arrived by boat before 1 January 2014. These asylum seekers have been invited to apply for protection visas under the "fast track" processing system. While some have been granted protection, others are waiting to have their bar lifted by the Immigration Minister to make an application for a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). DIBP statistics reveal that 28,290 people are yet to have their cases assessed, while about 1,700 have been forced to leave or have left voluntarily.

In contrast to earlier policies barring those on temporary visas from working, work rights are now being issued for the majority of Bridging Visa E holders. According to the DIBP by September 2015, 22,800 asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E have been granted work rights including Sri Lankan asylum seekers. The work rights of BVE holders vary. The Sri Lankan asylum seekers who I interviewed complained that their work rights are restricted in contrast to the unrestricted work rights of TPV and SHEV visa holders which are not.

Specifically, the validity of their work rights expires with their Bridging Visa E which is only valid for three months. It has therefore become almost impossible to find long term stable employment. Potential employers are reluctant to offer them jobs due to the complications of obtaining a visa renewal that comes with work rights.

My research also reveals that asylum seekers experience a range of other obstacles in accessing employment. In the absence of full work rights, they become victims of labour exploitation in the informal sector. To support their families in Sri Lanka, they are forced to accept temporary or part-time low-skilled jobs for meagre wages, working long work hours in insecure working conditions.

Keeping up-to-date with job market requirements is a further challenge due to downward occupational mobility and deskilling as a result of being denied the right to work during their first years in the Australian community. Inadequate local experience and lack of English language proficiency, coupled with employer prejudice and discrimination have also prevented them from entering the labour force whether or not they have formal rights.

Intrusions by state authority into their daily lives has led to a restriction of their agency. The lack of awareness and powerlessness to resist these discriminatory policies was common among the group I interviewed. For these individuals, unemployment is not a personal choice. It has been forced upon them by the institutional status quo while, at the same time, they are blamed for their dependence on welfare. Full work rights without restriction would alleviate the need for welfare payment and hasten their feeling of autonomy and dignity.


My research revealed that Sri Lankan asylum seekers experience the adverse effects of the temporariness of their visa status at different levels. They find themselves de facto segregated, mostly interacting only with the group of people with whom they travelled by boat. On the one hand, staying with their own group has helped them to overcome the barriers of isolation and insecurity, but on the other it has made it more difficult for them to build relations with Australia and Australians. Though racism affects all migrants of colour in Australia, especially those on temporary work visas, these Sri Lankan asylum seekers' exclusion from the world of work and their constant subjection to border controls, makes their susceptibility to exploitation and isolation more pronounced.

The participants in my study are from various backgrounds and often have substantial skills and work experience. They have the capacity, willingness and preparedness to work hard and make significant economic and social contributions to Australia. However, cruelty and rejection as a result of Australia's punitive immigration regime places them in a situation of permanent limbo, an 'onshore' version of the deterrent strategies against asylum seekers who arrive by boat widely condemned, yet unrelenting, in detention sites 'offshore'.

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About the Author

Dilini Withanalage is a PhD Candidate in the School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University Australia. Her PhD research investigates the Sri Lankan asylum seekers who arrived by boat living in the Australia community on temporary visas. She has an MPhil Degree in Development Studies from the University of Cambridge UK and a Bachelor of Arts (First Class Honors) in International Relations from the University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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