John Menadue. Temporary Protection Visas and the Senate cross-bench.

Dec 11, 2014

I wish that the Rudd, Gillard and Abbott Governments had done things very differently on refugee policies. But faced with the impasse at the present time, I welcome the compromise arrangement which the government has negotiated with the senate cross benches – two senators from the Palmer Group, Nick Xenophon, Ricky Muir, Bob Day and David Leyonhjelm. But like the curate’s egg it is good and bad in parts.

As a result a negotiated package has been achieved that will enable the government to get the refugee processing system moving again to assess the claims of over 30,000 asylum seekers who are in detention or in the community with very restricted rights. The package includes

  • The introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which will grant three year residency for those found to have a legitimate refugee claim. At the end of that period they will not be guaranteed a permanent visa, but may re apply.
  • The introduction of Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs) for five years if the asylum seeker spends that time either working or studying in a designated regional area whilst their claim is being processed.
  • There will be an increase in the humanitarian intake of 7,500 places over several years.
  • Asylum seekers on bridging visas will have the right to work.
  • All children in detention, except those on Nauru, will be released into the community.
  • Medicare will be made more readily available.

This cannot be the end of the process, but I have no doubt that worthwhile progress has been made. The blockage in the system has been removed and processing will start. This is very important.

It will be important to hold the government to account for this increase in the humanitarian intake to ensure ‘changed circumstances ‘does not result in a failure to implement the increase.

In the past I have opposed TPVs for maritime arrivals because they leave the claimants in limbo about their future, they denied family reunion and did not deter asylum seekers as successive governments have suggested. But with 30,000 people already in limbo, some progress through TPVs would materially help their position. In a different political landscape, both in Australia and in countries from which asylum seekers have fled, it is not unreasonable to expect that over 80% of asylum seekers issued with TPVs will become permanent residents or citizens within the next ten years.

Even with rights to work and some Medicare support, the large number of asylum seekers who will be moving into the community will present a major challenge for NGOs, churches and asylum seeker centres who generously support asylum seekers in their need. The government will need to urgently address this financial burden.

There are other significant problems which will have to be addressed; the increased powers for defence and customs personnel; refoulment; compatibility with the Refugee Convention and judicial oversight.

To cover its own failure, the ALP has said that the government was using children in detention as pawns in the negotiations. I understand that view and it is true that the government could have released these children at any time as also the last ALP government could have but didn’t.  But as part of a package the release of children is an excellent outcome, whatever the antecedents or background.

The purists will not like this package. As a friend of mine said, he would not want to have these purists advocating on his behalf. ‘If I were starving, I expect I would die because these purists would deny me access to bread and water while fighting for my entitlement to a three-course meal’.

I am surprised that the ALP didn’t take the opportunity to negotiate hard over the package. Instead it ceded asylum policy negotiations to the senate cross benches. What a sad abrogation of responsibility by the ALP to leave the outcome to Ricky Muir and others.

I have written before about the abject failure of the Greens on both climate policy and refugees. On climate policy the Greens voted with the coalition in the Senate in 2009 to vote down Kevin Rudd’s Climate Pollution Reduction Scheme. Always the purists, the Greens wanted more than was on the table. Legislation was defeated in the Senate and we have gone backwards on climate policy ever since. The policy purity of the Greens and their incessant posturing has caused great damage to Australia on climate change.

And the same is true on asylum seekers and refugees. Here again the Greens sided with the coalition in theSenate over two years ago to vote down theArrangement with Malaysia which the UNHCR said it could work with. The failure of the Senate to pass the enabling legislation after the High Court decision in 2011 meant that the Malaysian Arrangement failed. That triggered the enormous increase in boat arrivals in 2013. This led to Manus and Nauru. For this the Greens must bear a heavy responsibility. But they still continue to wash their hands of responsibility and parade their policy purity. Their posturing has delivered awful consequences for asylum seekers and refugees.

It is also time both the ALP and the Greens showed some tactical nous. For the present, they have dealt themselves out of effective participation and negotiation on a very difficult but critical issue – the plight of 30,000 asylum seekers whose claims are waiting assessment.

These amendments to the Migration Act must be seen as work in progress. There are many important issues that will hopefully be corrected with a change of government. There many important things that need to be done

  • Increase the humanitarian intake to at least 25 000 pa
  • Abolish mandatory detention which is cruel, expensive and does not deter.
  • Establish Orderly Departure Arrangements with Sri Lanka, Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Open more migration pathways, like 457 visas for persons who may be borderline refugees
  • De militarise our refugee policies and programs.

A lot more must be done. But breaking the deadlock on the 30,000 forgotten people in detention or on bridging visas is an important step.

As refugee advocates we have some hard thinking ahead.  To date we have failed comprehensively   to win improvements for people in great need. The perfect has become the enemy of the good. Needy asylum seekers are the losers.

Sometimes harm minimisation is the best course, a course that the ALP and the Greens chose not to take on the Migration Act amendments.

Aren’t 30,000 strangers in our land in need of help today, not in one or two years’ time!

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