The Paper Trail For Asylum Seekers


Tony Abbott launched his "Real Action" scare campaign last weekend and much of the media is in fear-mongering overdrive. The Government is in on the act too, having just committed a whopping $1.2 billion to the "protection" of our borders. Current attempts to discuss asylum seekers are an absolute joke.

Then again, has a single asylum seeker laughed yet?

To be fair, war, murder, torture, gang rape and other such acts are not things most Australians usually have to relate to — all too brief news clips about border security followed by the sports report and the weather don’t make it easy. My interactions with asylum seekers as a legal volunteer at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne meant that I had to make the effort.

What I’ve learnt from my experiences, even just from my paralegal tasks and casual conversations with asylum seekers, defies the "Real Action" imagery of red arrows invading us by sea. For starters, there is no arrow from China, the country from which the most asylum applications were received in 2009.

The majority of our clients don’t arrive by boat anyway. They arrive by plane with passports and visas, by those legal channels our politicians talk about ad nauseam. Furthermore, many arrive here and try to gain permanent residency through study or work. They’re not jumping off the plane expecting "private jets and four-star hotels."

Even when people try to do things the "right way", it can still go wrong: the money runs out; the tuition fees can’t be paid; the visa gets cancelled. Suddenly these people have to face the possibility that they will be sent home to face horrors we merely read about.

That’s why it’s important to write about what asylum seekers endure in our own communities: what people facing financial turmoil, mental health problems (pdf) and constant instability (pdf) deal with for months or even years on end. These experiences act as a bridge between the distant world of persecution and everyday anxieties about paying the mortgage that the community at large can understand.

You see, as soon as an asylum seeker sets foot in Australia a whole new traumatic experience begins: persuading the government that they are a refugee.

It starts with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC). More specifically, the ordeal begins with forms.

Lots of forms.

Forms for medical exams, radiological tests, character and security checks; approval forms to take photographs and fingerprints; Australian values statements: it’s a long list. It’s taken me months to master the process and I wonder how asylum seekers, often with little knowledge of English and Australian bureaucracy, manage on their own?

To their credit, DIAC officers do sometimes refer asylum seekers to free government-funded legal services. However, their promotion efforts are inadequate, given that many go to migration agents for help instead. Migration services, not surprisingly, are pricey — the Migration Agents Registration Authority recommends charging up to $3000 to process Onshore Protection Visas, which may come out of an asylum seeker’s money for rent, food or savings intended for school fees.

For people desperate to escape persecution no cost is too high — but if they are unlucky enough to hire an incompetent or inexperienced agent, serious problems can arise, and the stakes are extremely high. You could compare this experience to hiring a dodgy accountant to do your taxes, I guess, the difference being that when your accountant makes a mistake you almost always get a chance to fix it.

DIAC’s decision-makers are charged with assessing claims against the UN Refugee Convention (pdf) prior to making a decision. Officers might be trained in the legal and policy issues surrounding refugees but in my experience, there are too many occasions when this training doesn’t seem to have informed the final decision.

Claims can be rejected on the basis of an applicant’s submission alone, as follow-up interviews are merely optional. Interviews should, I believe, be mandatory because they give asylum seekers a platform to tell their stories effectively.

If an interview does get scheduled, the fact that the person’s experiences may have taken place years beforehand means they are hard to recollect, resulting in inconsistent stories. Being under severe stress in the interview only makes stories more jumbled and confused — it’s often a matter of life and death, and even having a lawyer present to assist can have little effect.

I should emphasise that some decision-makers do take into account the stress, trauma and confusion that asylum seekers have, but others demonstrate a serious lack of empathy.

To use a personal example, one asylum seeker I knew was rejected because the decision-maker did not think it sensible that he had distributed political documentation by hand and not via the internet. That is, when in his home country, he had shared hard copies of anti-government documents on behalf of an opposition group. The decision-maker thought that it would have been safer for him to use the internet.

I did some follow-up research and Googled this person’s country of origin. The top result? A World Bank statistic stating that less than 0.5 per cent of the population had internet access. Leaving aside the question of whether the internet is a safe way to share documents, it was extremely difficult to access in this instance. Hardly an obscure statistic to source, yet the decision-maker’s own ignorance jeopardised this person’s well-being.

Another asylum seeker our team assisted was informed, again by letter, that she should have expected reprisals from the government for her political activism and therefore her claims were not those of a refugee. On both these occasions the decision-maker’s reasoning was only fully outlined in the letter sent to us weeks later. Once a decision is made DIAC ignores all further appeals.

How would you feel if you had just had your application for asylum rejected on these grounds? Anger, frustration, confusion, fear?

Definitely. But you would also feel something more — betrayal.

It’s hard enough for those with traumatic experiences to tell their stories. For many rape victims the cultural norm is to never speak of it, even with family members. To recall days of interrogation and torture can bring flashbacks and send a person into shock.

But to speak of these scarring events in the hope of gaining freedom, only to be deemed "not credible" is devastating. When such phrases are used the underlying message is simple — "I do not believe you. You are lying. You are a liar."

Despite these experiences, asylum seekers keep going back to risk this horrible rejection. Why? Because dealing with an uncaring bureaucracy, being the target of hostile politicians, and being unfairly labelled by the media is infinitely better than being beaten by violent police, being left destitute by a corrupt government or being killed by fanatical extremists.

Since DIAC does not hear further appeals following an interview, asylum seekers must next take their case to the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT). When properly conducted, a hearing will assess claims sympathetically and fairly, and can make a proper judgement based on the individual’s testimony and reliable country information.

However, the same issues of bias and poor training pervasive at DIAC can emerge at the RRT. The ASRC’s report "A Case for Justice" (pdf) described one hearing in which the tribunal member ignored evidence regarding an asylum seeker’s religious beliefs, crucial to his claim, instead focusing on his visa application and finances. The case was rejected without a single question about religion asked.

Such stories demonstrate the need for a training overhaul so that these public servants can provide an adequate service to the people dependent on them for help.

Failing at the RRT means that the asylum seeker must now apply to Immigration Minister Chris Evans for intervention. There are two options: to appeal directly for help on compassionate grounds or to request to be assessed again by DIAC. The second option means that the whole frustrating process starts all over again.

In reality, unless your home country has gone to absolute hell recently, you’ve contributed significantly to the community, or you have overwhelming physical or mental health problems, chances are your request to the minister will be rejected. Given cases like that of Edward Joseph, compassion does not appear to be dispensed in large doses.

We might tell ourselves that just being in Australia means stability and freedom for asylum seekers, but once you realise that the persecution of these people is exacerbated by poverty, endless waiting and constant rejection, you may just start to empathise with their feelings and experiences.

And you might start to see that, for all the politics and border security funding, we are doing a great job of keeping refugees out of Australia with attitude alone.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.