Refugees, who were formerly assessed as deserving of Australia’s protection, now fear they will be subjected to another assessment by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
The federal government is preparing to reassess their claims as it clears a backlog of 30,000 cases.
Some refugees have recently received letters from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) asking to resubmit their claims and applications for temporary visas.
The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) says it is highly unusual for a person found to be a refugee to be assessed again.
“As soon you are recognised, then you are a refugees and entitled to protection. What has changed is the form that protection takes,” RCOA senior policy officer Lucy Morgan said.
“If they’ve already had their claims assessed and already found to be refugees, it was our understanding that they wouldn’t have to have that assessment done all over again, so while they wouldn’t be entitled to permanent residency in Australia, they would be entitled to a humanitarian visa.”
In August 2012, the Gillard government barred asylum seekers arriving by sea from being processed in Australia. Those asylum seekers are sent off-shore to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or to Nauru.
More than 4,000 people who arrived in Australia before August 2012 are caught in limbo between Gillard government-era policies and a succession of legal changes since.
They are now part of a backlog of almost 30,000 asylum seekers the DIBP is trying to clear off its books.
One family of Tamil refugees in Brisbane was told they were refugees in a letter from the DIBP in 2011.
“Having assessed your case, I am satisfied that you are a person to whom Australia has protection obligations,” it stated, adding eligibility for a visa was subject to health, identity, security and character checks and referral to the minister.
They applied for permanent resident visas, which they were eligible for, but because of delays in the screening process they have remained on bridging visas until now.
No longer eligible for permanent residency, a letter from Immigration in October asked them to apply “for either a Temporary Protection (subclass 785) visa (TPV) or Safe Haven Enterprise (subclass 790) visa (SHEV)”.
A subsequent paragraph states, “By applying for one of these visas, the department will be able to assess your claims for protection and determine whether you will be granted a temporary visa to stay in Australia.”
“We’ve had no clarification from the department,” said migration agent Rebecca Lim, who is representing the Tamils.
“Basically they have to reapply and their claims could be assessed as a whole new application and if found to be a refugee afforded temporary protection only.”
The RCOA says it has become aware of similar cases.
“The situation of this group really points to how difficult and torturous Australia’s processes for assessing refugee claims has become over the last few years.
“They were found to be refugees and are now being subject to policies of deterrence that would not and could not have applied to them when they first arrived in Australia. The way they are being treated is purely punitive.”
The family of Catholics from Sri Lanka questions if the Australian government wants to take Christian refugees from Syria, then why will it not take them too.
“They are not really concerned about these Christians, they are Sri Lanka Christians, Tamil christians,” said Father Pan Jordan, a Tamil community worker in Brisbane.
“That is the problem with this government and has been for quite a long time.”
“The more they understand, the more depressed they become about this process.”
The DIBP, in response to questions from SBS, restated: “if they are found to engage Australia’s protection obligations and meet all other criteria (such as health, security, character and identity requirements), will be granted a TPV”.
“The pre-13 August 2012 caseload is complex, with many applicants at different stages in the protection visa application process.
“Changes to both the Migration Act 1958 and the Migration Regulations 1994 mean that all valid applications for permanent Protection Visas lodged by IMAs that were not finalised by 16 December 2014 have been converted to be applications for Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs).”
If they fail to satisfy the DIBP, under new tighter refugee criteria, this could be their fifth and last Christmas in Australia.
“People who arrive by boat are being punished over and over and over again,” Ms Lim said.
Unlike post-August 2012 arrivals, these refugees are still eligible for a judicial review, if their claims are rejected.