After nine years of refugee horror: Labor must grant permanent visas now

This year on 19 July marked nine years since Kevin Rudd’s Labor government announced that asylum-seekers who arrived by boat would be sent offshore and never be allowed to resettle in Australia.

The Albanese government was very quick to grab a headline and pose for photos with the Tamil family when they got “home to Bilo”. But the around 26,000 refugees in Australia on temporary protection visas (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV) are still waiting for the new Labor government to act on its only other promise to refugees, to grant them all permanent visas.

When Rudd was elected in December 2007, it took Labor five months before they announced that refugees would get permanent visas. And it took another five months until August 2008 before legislation was passed to fulfil the promise. 

Labor plans to use regulation, not legislation, to grant permanent visas this time. We are not waiting five or ten months for them to do it. Every day delayed, is one more day added to the years of separated families, children denied tertiary education, and the agony of losing work rights, with no right to Centrelink, while expired visas are waiting to be renewed.

After years of Albanese criticising Morrison for not finding third country resettlement for the people that Labor sent to Nauru and PNG, Labor in government has turned a deaf ear to the calls to evacuate Nauru and PNG.

Despite the New Zealand deal struck in the dying days of the Morrison government, Labor knows that between 500-600 refugees have no third country resettlement prospects. Labor needs to act immediately to end the insecurity and offer permanent visas to any of them who want one.

There are thousands of Afghan and Tamil refugees who, because they only have temporary visas, are powerless to help their families still trapped in their home countries. There are thousands more technically unlawful asylum seekers who can’t return home to Afghanistan or Sri Lanka—they also need permanent visas.

The fast track system introduced by the Coalition is rigged to reject asylum claims and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) that considers refugee appeals is filled with Liberal Party appointees.

Turnbacks and offshore

But Labor’s support for turnbacks, offshore detention and its commitment to the deterrence politics of Operation Sovereign Borders means its fundamental refugee policies are little different to the Coalition’s.

Albanese tells anyone who will listen that he now thinks that the Coalition’s turnback policies “stopped the boats”. Labor even embraced Morrison’s refusal to comment on “on water” matters, using “security grounds” for refusing to comment when questioned about the first turnback after Labor was elected.

After turning asylum boats back to Sri Lanka following the election, Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil visited Sri Lanka on 20 June, with Labor announcing a $50 million package for the Sri Lankan government. But while Sri Lankans go hungry and are desperate for fuel, more than half of the money is being used to put GPS trackers on fishing boats to help the Sri Lankan navy prevent asylum boats leaving the country.

Albanese developed a glib phrase “you can be tough on people smugglers without being weak on humanity” that he used to try and distance Labor from the Coalition prior to the election. It was how he explained Labor’s willingness to give the Tamil family bridging visas and allow them to move back to Biloela.

The phrase allowed people to believe that Labor would take a fundamentally different approach to the refugees on Nauru and PNG, that all Afghans would get permanent visas, that the ban on refugees in Indonesia would end and deportations to Sri Lanka would stop.

The “humanity” that Albanese talked about does not extend very far. Betelhem, an Ethiopian refugee, arrived on Christmas Island on 11 November 2013 and was transferred to Nauru two weeks later. She was then detained in Australia in 2015 for two years. After further time in community detention, she is now on a six-month bridging visa. Betelhem speaks for tens of thousands when she says, “July 19 destroyed my life.” 

There will be no “humanity” until the politics of Operation Sovereign Borders is dismantled. Labor won’t do that. By building protests and demonstrations the refugee movement can.

By Ian Rintoul


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