For the past three months, rain or shine, a small, sad group of anywhere between 14 to 28 men meet outside Milsons Point railway station every Sunday at midday to march to and demonstrate at the gates of Kirribilli House. They deserve to be heard.
Their dedicated leader, Jamal Daoud, a Palestinian migration agent, rallies the men, leading the chants on a small sound system: “Free free the refugees; eight years too long.” On a day with a full contingent, men from Syria, Iran, Iraq and Sudan march and chant through the streets of affluent Kirribilli, ending up outside the gates of Kirribilli House, challenging the Prime Minister, with a different chant, to come out and meet with them: “Scott Morrison, where are you?”
Last Sunday the crowds at the Kirribilli markets, just a dozen metres away from the initial rally, carried on shopping as if we were invisible. Then one woman spat abuse over her shoulder and another joined in solidarity. The jacarandas were out and tourists abounded. The previous Sunday, as a small group of mostly Iraqi men passed along the damp, almost deserted streets, two older women signalled their support and we were joined by a young woman, a classical musician, who had listened to the group at the railway station and in all conscience felt the need to bear witness and join in.
Short speeches from the two Australians present are supportive but words from a few of the protesters are heartbreaking. They are members of a small cohort of asylum-seeking “boat people” (now mostly recognized as refugees) who arrived before the arbitrary cut-off day of August 13, 2012. After that date asylum seekers who came by boat were sent to the Manus and Nauru camps. Of that offshore group, 290 are still on the islands while 200 who were medevac’d here are in hotel prisons in Melbourne, Darwin and Brisbane.
Like everything to do with asylum seekers and refugees these days, it is a moveable feast and information is fluid.
Offshore numbers are declining as more leave on the USA exchange deal or are lucky enough to be sponsored, mainly to Canada, through community fundraising. Those marching through Kirribilli and their ilk aren’t going anywhere unless they are unwillingly repatriated back to a country of origin where in some cases, their lives will be threatened.
These men were detained eight or more years ago. After time imprisoned on Christmas Island and in other detention facilities, they were released into community detention and granted Bridging Visa E (no right to work, no right to study). They were housed and given some token money. The then Labor government froze processing of their applications. In 2013 the Liberal government introduced legislation to process applications and if applicants were found to be refugees, they would be granted temporary visas (not permanent).
The government introduced two kinds of rolling temporary visas: the TPV (for three years) and SHEV (for five years). In December 2014, the government changed the processing arrangements by introducing Fast Track Processing: denying refugees the right to have any appeal heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT).
It is estimated that 18,000 people are on these TPVs.
For a non-specialist, picking a way through the labyrinth of the shifting machinations of visa conditions and requirements is challenging. These legacy cases on the fast track system have been waiting years for a determination of their status. If the Department of Immigration refuses an application for a Permanent Protection Visa, it will be referred to an internal (not independent) appeal process. The rejection rate is high.
If rejected, these refugees can appeal through the Federal Court, but the court can only examine whether there have been jurisdictional errors. Meanwhile refugees arriving by air can have their cases heard by the AAT, which has the power to consider the case as a new case altogether. The approval rate at the AAT is significantly higher.
If an application is refused under the fast track system, refugees could lose special benefits. Medicare and work rights continue only until the Federal Court makes a determination.
At the conclusion of my first march, I was chased by a distraught Iraqi man who wanted an Australian to know his story. He had been a Master of Laws in Iraq. Almost in tears and clearly suffering from stress, he told me of his pregnant wife and sick son, neither of whom was eligible for any health care. Listening to the men, suffering from physical and mental pain is a major recurrent theme. Another is the fact that some have not seen their families for eight or more years. One man almost cries as he tells me that his six children still in Iraq have abandoned him. Another holds a picture of his son aged three months, taken when he left Iraq and now a grown boy.
One Sunday, a slight young Sudanese man in his 20s with the face of a young teenager talked only of his constant pain. “We are human, too,” he pleaded. As Jamal says, some of these men came here as brave 14 or 15-year olds. Together with the asylum seekers who were sent to Manus and Nauru these were people with great potential. Australia is now systematically crushing that.
Last Sunday as I talked to a number of Iraqis I was overcome with irony. I was here three years ago when a group of religious leaders chained themselves to the gates of Kirribilli House seeking the release of those on Manus and Nauru. More poignantly, in 2003 outside these same gates, I organized some 20 local residents to tie purple ribbons on the railings and stand in silent vigil every Sunday morning for a few months. We were opposing John Howard taking the country into an unjust war with Iraq. Here, years later, some of the victims of that war are pleading to the same deaf ears at the same gates.
Things seem to be on the move in Australia’s relationship with refugees. There is little doubt that the scaffolding around all categories within this vulnerable sector is being deliberately dismantled. Hundreds of Manus and Nauru refugees, including women and children, were brought to Australia for medical help before the Medevac Bill was temporarily passed. They were held in community detention but in August letters started to arrive telling them they were no longer entitled to various assistance, including accommodation and income support. Thrown to the wolves in a time of pandemic uncertainty.
In the recent Budget, the figures indicate a decreasing commitment to any domestic and global obligations to the dispossessed. Spending on financial support for people seeking asylum has been reduced to just $19.6 million in 2020-21, a reduction of $120.2 million in the yearly spend in just three years. (Remember the $40 million spend to buy a place for four refugees in Cambodia and all the monies paid to Paladin and Serco?) Australia has also cut its refugee and humanitarian program to 13,750 places per year, saving $911.3 million over the next four years. And this in a world where in 2018 there were about 25.9 million refugees, half of whom were children under the age of 18. There are 70 million displaced persons globally.
As I leave the rally, I am again struck by the courtesy, the smiles, thanks and waves and offers of umbrellas these men have given. I note how Jamal on his loudspeaker thanks the accompanying, weekly-increasing numbers of state police for their assistance. What fine citizens these men would make. I have no doubt that one day a better government will hold a special ceremony in Parliament House and, just as we have done with First Nations peoples and victims of child sexual abuse, offer a national apology to those here we have treated so badly, those in many cases whose youth we have stolen. The photos the nearby Federal Police are taking of the group should help identify some of those we owe.