Dutton’s new war on refugees
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.
In recent weeks, refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia began to receive letters from the federal government.
The letters stripped them of financial support and threatened them with deportation
Today, senior reporter for The Saturday Paper, Rick Morton, on the newest frontline in the government’s war on refugees.
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Rick, can you start by telling me about these letters that have begun to arrive at the homes of asylum seekers in Australia? What do they say?
Well, they started arriving very slowly at first. It was more of a trickle.
And these letters just came out of the blue and said, you've got to you've got to leave. You haven't gone back to offshore detention, and if you haven't done that by now, we're gonna cut off all of your support.
To make it worse these letters were written completely in English, not in their native language, and right down to the title of the visa that they've been put on is part of this kind of project to instill fear in them.
So the visa is called a Final Departure Bridging Visa E is the full term. And I was talking to Kate Laynie, who works as the campaign and communications manager for Welcoming Australia, which is a refugee advocacy and service organisation there. And Kate was telling me that there are actually many letters like this.
Archival Tape -- Kate Laynie:
“We knew or suspected there’d be more and were trying to do as much as we could to prepare.”
But in fact, there was another two rounds of the Department of Home Affairs sending these letters to asylum seekers in late September.
Archival Tape -- Kate Laynie:
“The numbers, we were never sure of. And the timing, we were also not sure of...”
So so far, more than 500 men, women and children living in community detention have been placed on this final departure bridging visas and told, ‘your support's gone, figure out how to leave’.
Right. So Rick, can you tell me more about these 500 people? Who are they? And why are they in this position?
So this is the part of the story that really makes you understand how horrific this decision is. They're all refugees and asylum seekers. The vast majority are actually refugees. They've been assessed in offshore detention as being owed protection obligations, it's just that the Australian government won't do it. And they've come from Manus Island or Nauru to Australia for medical treatment.
They represent some of the most vulnerable and acutely unwell people in Australia. Physically, they suffer from, just give you an example, malnutrition, untreated dental infections, cancer, stroke, debilitating autoimmune conditions, and a litany of other infections or chronic health conditions. And most of them actually also endure severe psychological breaks from reality from indefinite detention. They've all got trauma, which manifests as psychosomatic disorders, which can be just as painful and serious as physical disorders, suicidal ideation and dissociation.
So it's not just a case of them having to have, you know, come to Australia for one surgery or one treatment. For most of them, the treatment is complex, and it is ongoing.
So, there's about 12 hundred who have been transferred since offshore detention began from Manus Island or Nauru to Australia to get treatment. And the coalition's been moving through this population trying to get them out of the country. And one of the ways they've been doing this is by starting up this final bridging visa.
So the thing that makes this particular policy decision so horrifying, even in the context of what we've seen over the last seven years, is that this group of 500 people at the moment is the most vulnerable of the medically transferred asylum seekers and refugees.
And they were so vulnerable that even the federal government themselves exempted them from having to be pushed onto these visas two and three years ago.
Right, so now they have been pushed onto these visas, what does that mean for their ability to get help and support?
So under the community detention regime, which has been in place for years now, they had their housing provided and paid for by the Department of Home Affairs. They had specific healthcare funding delivered by international health and medical services and a litany of its contractors. They had income support, 60 per cent of the equivalent Centrelink payments. And they had casework managers, which is probably one of most important parts of this, because they bring all of these services together and make sure that the asylum seeker or refugee has access to them.
The final departure visa strips them of all of these supports, with the one exception that it gives them access to Medicare. Remember, we have denied them work rights, even if they'd been in the community for seven years, which some of them have in Australia. We've denied them work rights for all of that time.
And now we've told them, actually, you can work. You've got infinite work rights. Off you go. See if you can cover all your expenses with all of these serious health conditions, with the economic disadvantage that you've already suffered, plus the economic recession that we're in as a country. And they have to do all of this within three weeks of receiving one of those letters.
Right. So to do all of that in three weeks seems almost impossible, especially at the moment, we're facing a pandemic and a recession.
Well, I mean, I'd find it almost impossible within three weeks. I mean, my whole life I've been renting and when you try and move house, I never had the money for bond, for instance. And that's what it's facing almost all of these people. They have to rent in the private rental market.
So it means now that if the charity sector can't step in, and they're doing their best, but they don't have the money and they're slammed as well, it means that if they can't do that, then these families are facing homelessness.
And, you know, what that means is that hundreds of people will be evicted from their homes, cut from income support and told to go and find jobs in the worst recession since the Great Depression.
And to make matters worse, there are about 160 people in Victoria who have yet to be subject to this, but they will be as soon as Covid-19 restrictions ease in that state.
So they know about it. Everyone is talking about it in those circles. And we've got services in Victoria who are doing their best to try and prepare for yet another kind of indignity, I guess, in what has been a long, sordid history of abuse, cruelty and indignity.
So it's just devastating. And some of the advocates tell me that it also feels really intentional.
We’ll be back after this.
Rick, let's talk more about these visas, the final departure visas. Why are they being implemented by the Federal government? What's behind this?
The final departure visas, they mark an escalation of the federal government's systematic dismantling of Australia's offshore and community detention apparatus.
So those in the medical and refugee sector see the visas as the ultimate move in a war of attrition. So I've talked to Tracey Cabrie, who is the center manager at the Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub in Brunswick in Victoria. And she told me that it's essentially an initial push to try and get people to go home.
How so? How does this push people to go home?
Well, the terms of the final departure visa, they're pretty slim and they provide holders with just three options, although the first, which is returning to offshore detention, is actually not even a practical option for the federal government. They haven't returned anyone to offshore detention in three years and they want to get the numbers in offshore detention in Manus Island and Nauru down to zero. So they're not even doing that. The forecast released in the recent budget actually make clear that the government will continue to reduce the number of people held in offshore detention until it reaches zero.So the remaining choices for these visa holders are to go home or resettle in a third country.
Now, for many, returning to the persecution they fled is just not possible. And as Tracey Cabrie points out, no Iranian refugees can return to their home country anyway because the government there has explicitly said that it will not accept them back. So without financial support, remaining in Australia may not be possible, but it's the only option many of them have.
And as we've seen with the very few who are subject to these arrangements since 2017, they haven't gone. They've just been couch surfing and moving from house to house in complete penury and completely reliant on the charitable sector to survive.
So, is there an option, under this visa, to stay in Australia?
It's not an explicit allowance under the terms of the visa, but the government knows full well that that is what is actually happening with the few that we've been able to, this is a horrible way to phrase this, but with the few that have been put through this process already. And so they've kind of been the guinea pigs and they haven't left the country, and the government knows it.
So these visas are granted for six months at a time. What really happens, I think it's a bit of an accounting trick. This allows the government to say that they ended when they do finish all of these letters. It allows them to say that they ended community detention in Australia, because they no longer become the federal government's problem, they become problems of the states and territories in which they reside. And the charity and social services sector who are trying to keep these people treading water.
But what it doesn't do is ever give them a pathway to permanent residency in Australia. So if they leave the country, they will never be allowed back in. So they are permanently in limbo.
Right. And so Rick, how does this strategy, if you like, how does it fit in more broadly with the Coalition's approach to asylum seekers and to detention at this moment in time?
Well I mean, we shouldn't be overly surprised that the punitive nature of the whole system continues. But there is a bit of a counterintuitive logic to this one in particular, because the federal governor has rebuffed settlement offers from New Zealand, for example. They don't seem to have any other third country settlement deals in the works, and yet they want everyone off offshore detention and they don't want community detention to hang around anymore.
So it doesn't achieve anything except cost shift the support for these people to the states and territories
And make their lives significantly harder.
Yeah. It will make their lives significantly harder, it will punish both the asylum seekers and refugees, and the refugee and asylum seeker advocacy sector itself, which the government has been at war with now for seven, eight, nine years.
You know, the number of people has increased fourfold who are subject to these visas in just two months. So the quantum of support required is much higher and it's much more difficult to organize with the input of the charitable sector.
And as someone said it to me, the final departure visa represents the harshest visa in the country for the most vulnerable people in the country. So there doesn't appear to be a lot of rhyme or reason to these moves, except that the Commonwealth gets to wash their hands of these people. And, you know, theoretically at least, say that they shut down community detention. You know, putting myself in their brain, what they'll say is that we ended Labor's problem.
What remains after all of that, I mean, they can end every lease in the country for community detention. They can end every bit of income support in the country. But the one thing they won't get rid of is the people themselves, they will remain in Australia because they have nowhere else to go and they are us. They are part of our community now.
And I mean, how can we not look after them? Because the consequences if we don't are far too great, both for the people themselves, and us more broadly and in how we get to think about ourselves as a nation.
Rick, thanks so much for talking to me about this today.
Thanks for having me, Ruby.
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Also in the news today...
The Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews says the state may have recorded its first day with zero new coronavirus cases since June.
Speaking yesterday, Daniel Andrews said the state had recorded one new case - but it involved a person who had previously tested positive, and may be shedding the virus.
Andrews also said retail and hospitality venues may be able to reopen earlier than expected, and that the ‘ring of steel’ between Melbourne and regional Victoria could be lifted next month.
It comes as NSW recorded two new locally acquired COVID cases, and three cases in hotel quarantine. The two local cases are linked to known cases or clusters.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am, see ya tomorrow.
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In recent weeks refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia have received letters from the federal government stripping them of financial support and threatening them with deportation. Today, Rick Morton on the newest frontline in the government’s war on refugees.
Guest: Senior reporter for The Saturday Paper Rick Morton.
Exclusive: War on refugees moves to final phase onshore in The Saturday Paper
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.
Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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