Writers often write about atrocities, persecution and other acts of human degradation to provide an historical record for the future, so that in the act of remembering we might avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. In the area of Australian refugee policy, an inhumane and unworkable system of granting temporary protection visas to vulnerable refugees has continued to re-emerge over recent years and it is now time we buried it forever.
In 1999 the Howard government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) for all refugees arriving by boat. Refugees who received these visas were denied family reunion, denied the right to re-enter the country if they left temporarily, denied resettlement assistance, and left to an uncertain future without the guarantee of ongoing protection. The visas were mostly granted for three years with some on Nauru receiving five-year temporary status.
Recently, the ALP Government reversed the policy, abolishing both TPVs and Temporary Humanitarian Visas (THVs). Immigration Minister Evans stated that, “the Temporary Protection visa was one of the worst aspects of the Howard government’s punitive treatment of refugees” and that it was, “a cruel and ineffective policy”.
But in 1999 the ALP in opposition did support the introduction of TPVs and back in the early 90s a domestic four-year temporary visa was part of Labor Party policy in government. Like the recent temporary visa, the Labor Party’s four-year visa was also condemned for the damage it could cause to the human beings involved.
In 1992 the clear and well documented message coming from anyone working with refugees was the same as it has been in recent years: granting only temporary protection status to refugees means re-traumatising vulnerable people.
Some of the submissions to a Joint Standing Committee inquiry in 1992 included comments from the Human Rights Commission that, “Refugees who have suffered serious trauma as a result of severe persecution have a particular need for assured continuity of protection.”
The Victorian Immigration Advice Centre said that, “four-year temporary permits wreak havoc on the lives of genuine refugees who want to put the past behind them and get on with their lives”, and the Australian Migration Couselling Service warned that, “many will confront employers who will choose not to recruit or promote them in the knowledge that their permanent stay is not guaranteed”.
If only the major political parties had listened.
In 1999 the Howard government ignored the inevitability of human damage that would lie ahead and introduced the temporary visas. Part of Immigration Minister Ruddock’s reasoning at the time was that a visa with no family reunion rights would act as a deterrent to married male refugees, as they would no longer be able to sponsor wives and children to join them in Australia. The Temporary Visa policy was designed to make life difficult for people arriving by boat and it was deliberately and unapologetically punitive.
But what soon became disastrously clear was that the TPVs created an incentive for vulnerable women and children to travel to Australia by fishing boat as the only means of reuniting with their husbands and fathers. The SIEVX tragedy in 2001, when 353 mostly women and children drowned trying to reach Australia, was the obvious worst case example of how this policy went horribly wrong.
The introduction of the visas had absolutely no impact on reducing the number of boat arrivals. During the 1999-2000 financial year 4,175 people arrived by boat, followed by another 4,137 arrivals in 2000-01. The large numbers continued in the 2001-02 period with a further 3,649 arrivals recorded. But still the policy continued.
Thousands of refugees became trapped in the web of uncertainty created by their temporary status. Refugees who had spent years in detention centres were given no resettlement assistance on release into the community. The burden of their care was shifted to individual community members who volunteered their time and money and to organised charities and refugee support groups who rescued people from sometimes disastrous circumstances. But many refugees fell through the cracks and ended up without any assistance to endure an uncertain future in a new country.
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