Government bows to MPs with a show of compassion

“IT’S FINALLY happened. The Federal Government will now allow some 9500 temporary protection visa holders to apply for permanent residence in Australia. This marks a major softening on asylum-seekers for the Howard Government. A complete reversal of the hard line of 2001 and the Tampa incident.

And it hasn’t been the largely counterproductive public protests of groups like A Just Australia or Julian Burnside that have brought the change. The Howard Government has always resisted reform through public embarrassment. Rather it has been the persistence and persuasion of Government MPs like Kevin Andrews, Marise Payne, Bruce Baird, Sharman Stone, Petro Georgio, Kay Hull, John Forrest, Christopher Pyne and Judi Moylan. And a growing and positive sea change in the electorate towards asylum-seekers.

In the National Party seat of Mallee, John Forrest MP has several thousand TPV holders. In November 2003, Forrest was arguing in the Coalition party room that a person considered eligible for an extension of their TPV should be given the right to settle permanently. Similar pressure on the Government from within has also come from Kay Hull, member for Riverina. Both these MPs represent conservative rural electorates.

As faceless, nameless people there was once little empathy for asylum-seekers. But the boats carrying them unlawfully to Australia have all but stopped coming. Unemployment levels have dropped substantially.

Meanwhile, regional communities in Liberal and National Party seats have befriended Afghan and Iraqi workers on temporary protection visas, heard their stories and empathised with their plight. And more and more Australians are lining up at places like Sydney’s Villawood detention centre to visit people locked up there. These Australians have been unable to refuse help – professional, financial, emotional, medical and otherwise – and have now become caught up in the lives of these very vulnerable people.

The Howard Government has not suddenly gone soft on people smuggling as was clear in Senator Amanda Vanstone’s press conference announcing the new policy on TPVs yesterday. But an election is close and the harshness of the approach to those on TPVs and children and families in detention is showing up as a negative for the Government in seats where it could make a difference. One gathering in Sydney a few weeks ago said it all.

On Sunday, July 4, a gathering for more than a hundred guests happened in Balgowlah, Sydney. Liberal Party territory and Tony Abbott’s electorate. The prawns came off the barbie and adults and children laughed and circulated as people arrived all afternoon until dusk. This was a party to celebrate the permanent visas just given to the Jezan family, Manee and Shahla and their three teenagers, all Sabean Mandaeans from Iran – visas given after intervention by the Minister for Immigration, Senator Vanstone.

Whatever the backgrounds, we were all friends of the Jezans. Yet we had never before congregated in the one place at the one time. In such an Australian setting, it was worth recalling that Justice Michael Kirby once said, to be an Australian is to win the lottery.

And what a gathering. Apart from the many who had helped and supported the Jezans with visits and letters, there was Cliff and Marion, friends of Liberal Bruce Baird MP, Kerrie Lee who visited the Jezans every week at Villawood for more than two years, Kerrie’s husband Alan who supported the Jezans in the courts, film makers Ian and Rosemary Dunlop and Sister Helen Barnes, legendary detainee supporter. Michael Casey, private secretary to Cardinal George Pell and Rabbi Jeffrey Kamins, chief rabbi of Temple Emanuel, Woollahra were there. The Jezan children’s teachers from Chester Hill High School attended, and university students who befriended the Jezan teenagers in detention.

Mandaeans in Iran are a persecuted minority and considered unclean. The Jezans fled after 13-year-old Reem was pressured to convert to Islam and then narrowly escaped abduction. On arrival in Darwin, they were taken to Villawood, where they remained for three years. Only with the combined efforts of Australian friends did they finally win their permanent visas by ministerial intervention.

Having fled trauma and life-threatening experiences, an asylum-seeker first comes before an immigration hearing to decide his or her bone fides. Here there are problems of translation, of fear of officialdom, of misunderstanding and, not least, the cursory and judgmental manner of many immigration officers. Many fail due to a lack of primary evidence and personal papers. Having lost this first hearing, the asylum-seeker can appear before the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Of all those who come before the RRT, only around 10 per cent are successful. RRT members are both appointed and dismissed by the Government. Some are more empathetic than others. Some are known for their mean spiritedness. Many believe there is an informal understanding that most cases should not succeed. For this reason, many genuine asylum-seekers eventually find their way to the appeal courts as the only avenue left. It can take years. Detaining these people costs the Australian taxpayer $700 a day, per detainee.

The Government has finally accepted that holders of protection visas are being welcomed by average Australians and will now offer them the very real possibility of permanent visas. But there is still the small group of asylum-seekers left in detention centres both on mainland Australia and on Nauru. As with the Jezans, there are many Australians who now empathise with their fate.

A Refugee Review Tribunal that reviewed all claims before it fairly, which did not see its work as being to dismiss a majority of claims and rationalise such rejections, and which put its resources into helping asylum-seekers establish their veracity instead of making it as difficult as possible, would not only deliver greater justice but release time, money and the efforts of hundreds of Australian volunteers to do more in other areas of need in the community.”

Article published in The Canberra Times

'2012