Supporters call for permanent visas for refugees.
Sections of Australia's refugee community feel excluded amid a visa fast-track program. Image by Diego Fedele/AAP PHOTOS
  • immigration

Visa push leaves refugee community on hold

Deborah Cassrels July 30, 2022

A visa priority program for offshore skilled migrants, students and visitors is leaving sections of Australia’s refugee community frustrated.

Immigration Minister Andrew Giles this week said backlogged applications were being fast-tracked to bolster economic growth and alleviate labour shortages.

Since June, 745,000 visa applications have been finalised, with more than 645,000 from offshore including 388,000 visitor visas, 62,000 student visas and 9550 temporary skilled visas.

“The processing of visas will continue to be a major priority for this government,” Mr Giles said.

Labor made a pre-election commitment to escalate permanency for refugees on bridging visas, promising to grant permanency to those in the community on temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas.

There was no commitment to grant detained refugees permanent status.

About 100,000 people in the community are seeking asylum and of those 19,000 are on temporary protection visas, with 65,000 awaiting their application outcome, according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.

Thanush Selvarasa, who was in offshore and hotel detention for nine years, said “we have been living in limbo, suffering for 10 to 12 years”.

“We cannot do anything on a temporary visa. I can work but I can’t get a permanent job or training because I have a temporary visa which must be renewed every six months. I cannot rent my own house,” said Mr Selvarasa, who works in the National Disability Insurance Scheme and drives a forklift.

“If they give us permanency we can sort out the labour shortage in Australia.” 

A major concern for him and his fellow refugees is the ineligibility to travel to see family, or be reunited.

“Every day when we wake up, it’s the first thing on our mind: when are we going to get permanency?” he said. 

Ian Rintoul from the Refugee Action Coalition said there is no indication the government is moving on the issue.

“The announcements made so far by the Labor government do not mean anything for asylum seekers or refugees,” he said. 

“The government is prioritising offshore skilled, student and visitor visas – visas that are regarded as being most important for the Australian economy.”

Refugee advocates and centres have been inundated with inquiries about humanitarian visas for asylum seekers since the government announcement.

The director of the Refugee Resource Hub in Melbourne’s southeast, Qutbiallam Timor, said many in dire situations were deeply disappointed.

“They are looking for a specific announcement, also those refugees in limbo in Indonesia and in offshore detention on Nauru. Zero change has happened,” he said.

“There is a lot of disappointment. They were counting the days for the change of government because they thought change would come. 

“It has been a couple of months (since the election) but they have had no news or … a timeline when this change would happen.”

Under the pre-existing coalition policy, supported by the Labor government, boat arrivals continue to have the lowest priority and cannot be granted permanency under Operation Sovereign Borders. 

There are 216 boat arrivals in offshore detention, and 1512 people in onshore immigration detention.

Jana Favero, director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said she has sought reassurances from the government.

“It’s one of the greatest areas of need,” she said. 

“People want to rebuild their lives and reunite with families and travel to see loved ones. 

“It was one of our requests within the first 100 days of government and we’ll be raising it again.”

She is hoping for clarity after a visit to Canberra next week, adding the government said it would honour its election promise.