Immigration Minister Chris Bowen is keen to distinguish Labor’s new policy of temporary visas for refugees who break the law from the Howard government’s Temporary Protection Visa. But how different are they?
Under Howard, Temporary Protection Visas were issued to all asylum seekers who arrived by "unauthorised" means and were subsequently assessed to be refugees. The visas lasted for three years, after which refugees could apply for a Permanent Protection Visa. In September 2001, changes to the legislation were introduced which meant that anyone who had "since leaving their home country … resided for seven days or more in a country where they could have sought and obtained protection" was unable to apply for permanent protection. The move was designed to affect boat arrivals — since most spend time in a third country such as Indonesia before boarding.
TPVs were abolished in 2008 by the Rudd government. "The scrapping of the TPV fulfils the Rudd Government’s commitment to providing refugees with a fair and certain outcome," then immigration minister Chris Evans said at the time.
So is the new arrangement merely TPV by another name? The short answer is no — TPVs were applied across the board and were issued for a finite period of three years. In fact, it is the return of another Howard era favourite — the Bridging Visa Class E — that is of greater concern.
Bowen has kept his options open in announcing the new policy, saying there are a "range" of temporary visas that could be applied in the event that a refugee is unable to be repatriated but has been convicted of a crime while in detention. However, not all temporary visas are equal — some don’t come with basic rights such as access to Medicare and social security benefits, or the right to work to support yourself.
During Howard’s time as PM hundreds of asylum seekers were living in the community on Bridging Visa Class E (BVE), under which they could not work or get subsidised medical care. Many of these people lived in poverty, surviving on the charity of strangers, and on pro bono medical assistance, for years at a time — with no certainty as to how long they would be able to stay.
The report Seeking Safety Not Charity, released by the Network of Asylum Seeker Agencies Victoria in 2005, documented the impact of Bridging Visa Class E on community-based asylum seekers, and found "spiralling difficulties with homelessness, cumulative debt, family breakdown and the exacerbation of existing health problems".
The report notes:
"Some 750-900 [BVE holders] are estimated to be living in Victoria. This group includes children, elderly persons and single parents without any form of independent income. Many of these asylum seekers are living in conditions of abject poverty. Some have been released from detention on the basis of special needs relating to mental and physical health; many have special needs as a result of the experience of torture and trauma. There is currently no Government provision made to assist with these needs, to provide general or specialist health care, to facilitate a dignified transition into the Australian community, or to encourage a degree of self-reliance. As a result of their visa conditions, BVE holders are dependent upon charity organisations."
To their credit, and without any fanfare, a network of service providers stepped up to support BVE holders where the Howard government failed them — including doctors who saw patients for free as well as hospitals that waived fees for surgery.
In light of this history, New Matilda sought clarification from the Minister about what rights such asylum seekers would have under the new arrangement. We asked:
– Will refugees on temporary visas under the new arrangement have access to Medicare and social security benefits?
– Will they have work rights?
– Will they be able to leave the country and return again?
– Will the visas come with a time limit?
– How much notice will they be given before the visa is revoked?
We received this form response:
"The Minister has indicated that there are a range of temporary visas that he could consider granting, depending on the circumstances of the case. The rights and conditions on such visas will differ depending on the type of visa granted."
When we asked whether Bridging Visa Class E would be used in this instance, the spokesperson for the Minister told us "This is a discretionary power under the Migration Act, so the Minister could choose to grant whatever visa he sees fit."
In media appearances, Bowen has mentioned two classes of visa that might be applied under the new arrangement (among others): the Removal Pending Bridging Visa, and the Safe Haven Visa.
The Removal Pending Bridging Visa was introduced in 2005 "to enable the release, pending removal, of persons in immigration detention who have been cooperating fully with efforts to remove them from Australia, but whose removal from Australia is not reasonably practicable at the current time."
This visa does come with full work rights and social security benefits. However, according to Pamela Curr from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre "The chances of getting employment on this visa are very low". Holders are in limbo and do not know for how long they will be able to remain in Australia. There are no family reunion options, and holders are not able to leave the country to visit family elsewhere. "This visa is subject to a range of conditions including a reporting requirement," according to the Immigration Department’s website.
The Safe Haven Visa was introduced in 1999 to allow refugees fleeing Kosovo to remain temporarily in Australia. It was designed to allow a fast response to humanitarian disasters overseas and with a specific purpose in mind. Unlike the Removal Pending Bridging Visa, it does not come with social security benefits — holders "do not meet the Social Security Act definition of Australian resident" according to FAHCSIA.
In a doorstop interview at his Fairfield electoral office on Tuesday, Bowen summed up the difference between his policy and the Howard government’s TPV regime like this:
"Well [Howard’s] temporary protection visas were across the board of course… if you have temporary protection visas across the board then there’s no incentive of course to conduct yourself in immigration detention in an orderly fashion. If you have a range of potential visas available … then you have an incentive to know that if you are a genuine refugee who has conducted themselves according to the law, according to the appropriate expectations of the Australian community then you would be granted a permanent visa, if not, then you will be granted a visa with less rights."
It’s hardly a clear explanation — and a long way from the "clear and certain outcome" promised by Rudd when he took office.
This kind of talk-back friendly prevarication might buy Bowen some time but it’s precisely the lack of detail and certainty that made the lives of asylum seekers living under temporary protection visas so difficult.
It might be time to stop comparing the new visas to those which flourished in the bad old days of Howard’s Australia. Letting Bowen encourage the notion that Howard’s policies marked an absolute low point on asylum seeker policy risks making the latest proposals look good by comparison. Between them, Gillard and Bowen are showing that they can do a perfectly good job of demonising asylum seekers. Indeed, when it comes to playing cruel and cynical immigration politics, the similarities between Howard’s Australia and Gillard’s are now more striking than the differences.
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