In the last few days of the 2014 Parliament, the controversial Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014 remains to be considered.
The Bill contains a wide range of proposed changes to the asylum system reflecting, amongst other things, concern by the government that the current system is too heavily weighted towards approving asylum claims – a concern shared, but not acted on, by the previous government before losing office.
It is unlikely that all of this complex mix of changes will get through the Senate.
The most hotly contested part of the Bill, which has been on the government’s agenda since taking office, is the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas for maritime asylum seekers.
Temporary Protection Visas are opposed by the opposition parties in the Senate and refugee advocates on the grounds of the uncertainty they create for the future of those found to be refugees, the need for a further assessment of refugee status, the personal stress and mental health effects, inability of refugees to achieve family reunion and the lesser scale of benefits compared to giving permanent residence to refugees.
These criticisms are undoubtedly justified.
More broadly, there is no evidence that the existence of Temporary Protection Visas acts in any way to deter asylum seekers from undertaking boat journeys. In public policy terms, Temporary Protection Visas only make sense where there are good reasons to suggest that a particular cohort of refugees might be able to go home relatively soon because of improvements expected in the situation in the country of origin. This does not apply to the main maritime asylum seeker nationalities in Australia.
On the other hand, there can be no doubt that reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas would place the 30,000 maritime asylum seekers in Australia in a much better position than they are now.
As long as the impasse persists, the government will keep maritime asylum seekers in detention, on bridging visas without work rights, on Temporary Humanitarian Concern Visas and often without formal decisions on their refugee status.
It will take years to make decisions on this very large group of people whatever system of case-by-case decision-making is adopted. If Temporary Protection Visas are reintroduced, the system will at least start to move again – asylum seekers will get a formal refugee status determination, refugees will get temporary visas with work rights and a suite of benefits. This will open the way to resolution of the future of this very large group of people. For those found to be refugees, one can expect that some years down the track, when the first Temporary Protection Visas are approaching expiry, in a different political landscape, the question of permanent status will be revisited in a more positive way.
There is clearly scope for opposition parties to negotiate with the government to seek changes that would improve the operation of the Temporary Protection Visa system set out in the Bill. They should be doing it now.
There is no reason why they could not agree to the reintroduction under protest, but on the basis that they have achieved some improvements to the working of the system.
The work of the Palmer United Party in negotiating a commitment to the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa, although at the margins, highlights the possibilities. There are undoubtedly many areas of process and outcome related to Temporary Protection Visas, short of permanent residence, that the government would be willing to consider.
Defeating the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas will be a pyrrhic victory. The main losers will be the asylum seekers. Maritime refugees will be no closer to permanent residence, but a year will have passed by with no improvement in their situation and there will be no prospect of any further movement for many months.
Time to negotiate.
Peter Hughes is Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU. He was formerly Deputy Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.