The View From Inside Detention Centres


After the federal election, one refugee I spoke to said he was glad there was a new government: it meant things might change.

Things have changed. We have Operation Sovereign Borders, a military fix to a humanitarian crisis. We also have closed-lipped emissaries.

Refugees in detention don’t know much about the new maritime regime of turning back boats. They are generally unaware that asylum seekers are now shipped to Manus Island or Nauru within 48 hours to be eventually resettlement in another country.

But with a lack of information about the new government’s policies, the refugees in detention are starting to worry.

Almost one month has passed since the federal election and refugees at one of the onshore detention centres have had two briefings with respect to policy changes. Neither of the briefings has conveyed any official changes to government policy and refugees are confused and anxious.

Thousands of children, families, single men and widows don’t know what is coming next in their complicated journeys to a safe future.

Prior to the election, now Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison announced that the Coalition would reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs).  Last week in his regular briefing, he confirmed that refugees in detention would no longer be eligible for permanent protection visas.

The policy, as stated, is that refugees who arrived prior to 19 July will only be granted TPVs. Morrison told the ABC “that means they do not get family reunion. They will be able to work … and at the end of their temporary protection visa term, which can be up to three years, they would be reassessed in terms of whether Australia owes them protection. And if Australia doesn't, then it'll be time to go home.”

Some refugees in detention are aware they will only receive TPVs, but they don’t understand what this may mean for their long-term future.  For refugees who have been in detention for four years, the prospect of not being granted a protection visa after another three years on a TPV is implausible.

It is also unclear whether the TPV policy requires legislative change – or whether the minister can unilaterally direct its implementation. When in opposition, Morrison introduced a private member’s bill to reintroduce TPVs, but the bill lapsed. It is sitting ready for Parliament to resume.

If legislation is required to reinstate TPVs, this probably won’t be possible until July 2014 when the current Senate retires. So, will any visas be granted to refugees in detention between now and next July?

The Australian political and legal hurdles are complex enough – they are even more bewildering to non-English speaking refugees who are hidden from the media and have limited channels of communication.

The reintroduction of TPVs was previously justified by Prime Minister Abbott as denying people smugglers a “product to sell”. But with such limited understanding about the TPV “product” and scarce communication with refugees currently in detention, the marketing of smugglers is unlikely to be killed off overnight.

Boats continue to arrive and, tragically, lives continue to be lost.  Some things have changed, but for refugees in detention, things have mostly stayed the same.

Scott Morrison’s office did not respond to questions by deadline.

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