In limbo – recognising the strength of people seeking asylum

In limbo – recognising the strength of people seeking asylum

Friday, 21 June 2019

Yesterday, 20 June, was World Refugee Day. It’s an opportunity to pay tribute to the strength and resilience of the people we help, and to remind ourselves of the journeys they have taken in order to find a safe place to rebuild their lives. Our Program Manager, Migration, Chelsea Clark shares her reflections on the importance of the Migration team's role in ensuring all asylum seekers get a fair go before the law.

I have been in Victoria Legal Aid’s Migration team for over 10 years and am now the manager. Our team has a proud tradition of working to protect procedural fairness in the processing of asylum seeker’s claims.

Every day my colleagues at Victoria Legal Aid and those involved in providing pro-bono legal assistance to refugees speak to people fleeing war, political oppression, persecution for their religion or sexuality and more.

Most of our clients are in limbo, waiting for a response to their applications for a protection visa. They are often anxious or terrified about what will happen at the expiry of their temporary protection visa.

I had hoped to share one of their stories with you today. But for most of our clients, telling their story is rarely simple. They often believe that raising their voice will jeopardise their chances of being granted a visa, and that’s a chance they are simply not willing to take. Many are also concerned for their families back home, fearing that if they were to share their story publicly, they could fall victim to vengeful local authorities.

By the time people seeking asylum reach our Migration team, they are often desperate, having exhausted almost all options for review of their application. They have been in Australia for five years or more, in detention or in the community.

Many of our clients are separated from their families, including young children, who they had to leave in their home countries. In most cases any access to financial support has been cut, and they are completely reliant on charity to survive. Some have bridging visas. Some do not. Some have work rights. Some do not. Many are suffering from a mental illness.

Our impact working on ‘fast-track’ matters

Despite these odds, our clients show remarkable resilience as they have their cases heard, often over several years in a system that seems stacked against them.

Where we once saw clients seeking direct permission from the Minister for Immigration to allow them to even apply for a visa, we now see them being refused a visa and automatically channelled through a fast-track review process, where there is a much less scrutiny of departmental decisions and the concept of procedural fairness has been all but stripped away.

Under this process asylum seekers’ have no right to a hearing, submissions are limited to five pages, discrepancies between statements given years-apart are taken as evidence of unreliability, there is a refusal to consider new information, and much more. All of this makes it much harder for people to make their case – especially in a context where legal assistance to help people who arrive by boat has been drastically cut.

This is borne out in recent statistics. For example, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan who has gone through the Immigration Assessment Authority fast-track review process has a 17 per cent chance of being found to be a refugee, as compared to a 68 per cent or higher chance if they had gone through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. And in years past, when the AAT was assessing claims of people who arrived by boat, rather than by plane, the likelihood of an asylum seeker from Afghanistan being found to be a refugee was as high as 89 per cent.

Recently we’ve been helping many people challenge decisions made under the fast-track review, taking their cases to the Federal Circuit Court and we’re often successful in having the decision not to grant them a visa overturned. The result is that they get another opportunity to have their applications assessed in accordance with the law. Even then, though, our clients are forced to go back through the same ‘fast-track’ process, where the odds are stacked against them ever being accepted as a refugee.

This work is ongoing, and our migration team remains committed to ensuring all asylum seekers get a fair go before the law. Because despite all that they are going through, all the barriers placed in their path, the people we speak to everyday are somehow still surviving – showing a resilience that is truly astonishing.

If we focus on anything this Refugee Week, let’s focus on that.

More information

Read more about World Refugee Day 2019.

Read our former Managing Director Bevan Warner’s thoughts on why Victoria Legal Aid champions fairness for refugees.

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