The mental torture of Temporary Protection Visa holders


Waiting for results can be unbearable. The overdue letter can cause anxiety as with every passing day the expected outcome appears to be more negative. Friends and family reassure you with maddening calm that no news is good news, and you can only wonder at their incomprehension of the anxiety you are experiencing.

Imagine then the trauma of waiting daily for months and in some cases years for a significant letter. I have been witness to the waiting of three families with whom I have developed a deep friendship. The women haunt their letter boxes, reluctant as days tick by to leave the house, in case the letter arrives and sits there unopened for even an hour. These women wait for news that will determine the lives of every member of their family. My friends are temporary protection visa holders from Iraq and Afghanistan and for them it is a matter of life and death.

Photo from Project SafeCom Inc.

Photo from Project SafeCom Inc .

The mental torture this creates is overwhelming to observe. The stories are different but the anguish is the same.

Fatimah, (all names have been changed for obvious reasons) her husband and five children have been in Australia since August 1999, three months before the temporary visa protection category was initiated. The family spent fourteen months in Port Hedland Detention Centre and after extensive interviewing were deemed to be legitimate refugees, in fear of persecution in Iraq and entitled to protection in this country.

The five children are aged between six and sixteen, the youngest only three months when they arrived in Australia. The children are highly regarded students at their schools, the two eldest children attending a Catholic College. Fatimah has been attending English classes at Edmund Rice Centre for four years, and is a key participant in the ‘Women Together’ group which I began in early 2002. She and her husband were interviewed in June 2004 for their application for a permanent visa and had to wait until February 2005 for a result which was negative. They immediately appealed to have their case heard by the Refugee Review Tribunal as they are assured by all who know their circumstances that they have a very strong case for appeal.

So began another waiting game for this family. Since that time, the toll of waiting daily for news, and the resulting crush to the family morale has rendered Fatimah unable to participate in the classes and group activities. She is severely traumatised by the idea of her family being deported to Iraq, and I have been very concerned about her welfare.

The images viewed daily of the death and destruction in Iraq are creating such mental torture at the prospect of her family being sent there, and there is no consolation possible for her and her family. Five days ago the pressure of waiting overwhelmed Fatimah, and she had a nervous breakdown which resulted in her being taken to hospital for assistance. The children and her husband have been further traumatised by their strong and resilient and comforting mother collapsing, and they remain terrified and depressed at the possible failure of their appeal.

Salina and her husband Wahid received their notification of rejection in March and since then have been suffering the fear of also being returned to Iraq. They have three children, twin boys of eleven and a daughter eight. They have chosen to keep the news of their rejection to themselves to spare their children the fear, and I believe they are suffering unbearably because of this. Also the fear that Wahid who is Palestinian and therefore stateless in Iraq, will be killed if they return. Their mental anguish is causing Salina severe anxiety attacks, and despair at the desperate situation of being outside any support group in Iraq if they were deported, plus the fear of the violence that is the reality of Iraq.

Nasreen, her husband and their four children are from Afghanistan, and received notice on 2 May that they have twenty-eight days to leave Australia, after four years here. Nasreen is in a very serious depressed state, and when I saw her the following day had severe pain down her left side, similar to the pain she experienced during bombing in Herat. She has been under a psychiatrist for some time, having monthly sessions to try and assist her depressed and anxious state. Apart from fearing for the safety of her two daughters, one of whom is sixteen and a student at Perth Modern School, Nasreen is mourning the murder of her brother, aged twenty seven, in Herat in 2004. He left his house to go to the market, and disappeared, and his body was found eight days later in the desert, having been shot. Her parents who have been living in Herat have been out of contact for the past eight months, and Nasreen is convinced that they have been hurt or killed. She is in a desperate mental state, and the bureaucratic letter received recently has been the cause of further unbearable trauma.

There are hundreds of families experiencing this distress. The three women I know are all suffering the mental torture of their uncertain status. I accompanied Fatimah to Royal Perth Hospital last week, and after explaining the circumstances of her difficulties, was told that she would be recorded as having ‘social problems’! There will be no information forwarded to any appropriate authority about the reasons for this strong, capable and resilient woman being reduced to the tearful, disabled person present in the emergency waiting room.

The truth is that Fatimah, Salina, Nasreen and their families, and hundreds of others are suffering because of the policy of this government to allow people to wait unnecessarily for months and years for the news they dread.

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