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Where Is Australia At When It Comes To Asylum Seeker & Refugee Rights?

It’s no secret that Australia has a horrific track record when it comes to the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum. In the past decade alone, a reported 4,183 people have been subjected to Australia’s system of mandatory and offshore detention. In November, the UN Committee Against Torture expressed serious concern and called for an end to the system.
The systemic issues impacting people seeking asylum in Australia are undeniable, but a high level of support for ethnic diversity and multiculturalism in the community is growing. According to the Scanlon Foundation Research Institute, 78% of Australians believe that accepting immigrants from different countries makes Australia stronger. 
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From the Morrison Government’s failed attempt to stoke panic about people seeking asylum by sea on election day, to the overwhelming support for bringing the Nadesalingam family home to Biloela, Australians’ willingness to embrace refugees has never been clearer.
As we head into 2023 — with a new Labor Government — Australia’s immigration system appears to be out of step with public opinion. 
So where exactly is Australia at, when it comes to the rights of refugees and people seeking asylum?
Hannah Dickinson is the Principal Solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), an organisation that has been helping to represent and assist people seeking asylum for over two decades. She tells Refinery29 Australia that due to an “unjust migration system, poor policy-making and resourcing,” there is currently a backlog of over 60,000 people seeking asylum in Australia.
“Governments have manufactured insecurity: there’s very little funded legal advice or support, and often people are banned from working or accessing Medicare while they wait,” says Dickinson. 
With over 2,700 pages of legislation relating to migration, and new rulings every day, Australia’s complex and ever-changing legal system makes it harder – not easier – for people to access their rights.

What Rights Do Refugees Have In Australia Right Now?

There are numerous barriers to refugees accessing even basic rights. 
Those on temporary bridging visas (which expire after three years before people are required to reapply), waiting for their case to be considered, are left in a state of limbo and intense stress. They are often separated from their families, with limited access to opportunities — including work and study — that would help them rebuild their lives.
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“The current system creates a cycle of poverty and disadvantage and harms individuals, families and communities,” says Dickinson.
People who arrived in Australia by sea after August 2012, when the Australian Government introduced a third-country processing regime for asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat, were subjected to the Morrison Government’s so-called ‘fast-track’ system. As a result, they can access only temporary protection if they are found to be refugees, and face a renewal process every few years.
Internationally, temporary status is reserved for exceptional circumstances, like mass movements of people fleeing war or disaster. Australia is the only country in the world to subject people it has formally recognised as refugees to temporary status with no firm pathway to permanence or family reunion.
 It was this issue that the Albanese Government promised to rectify, by granting permanent protection to all temporary visa holders — a pledge it has yet to fulfil.
Instead of using its powers to bring an end to the practice, the government actually increased funding for detention in its October 2022 Budget.

What Is It Like For Refugees Navigating Australia’s Immigration System?

In Australia, Dickinson explains, proving you’re a refugee involves huge swathes of paperwork, with the application alone stretching to 36 pages — available only in English. 
It also involves navigating complex criteria and providing submissions and evidence, including research into the Australian legal systems. And short, strict timeframes can lead people to lose their rights if they don’t comply.
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Throughout the process, people seeking asylum must repeatedly recount the most sensitive moments of their lives in traumatic detail, with little to no support. Those who may have faced persecution in their home countries must now grapple with sharing private, compromising or horrific details of their lives with authorities, fearing the consequences of doing so.
Unsurprisingly, these systems also make it difficult for people seeking asylum to find adequate representation. Investigations into biases in the immigration system found that having a lawyer makes you 6 to 7 times more likely to succeed. But at least half of people seeking asylum in Australia navigate processes unrepresented.
“In simple terms, without a lawyer, people applying for protection are set up to fail,” says Dickinson. 
Organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and its Human Rights Law Program aim to help people seeking asylum. A core part of their work is creating a safe environment for people to share their stories.
“We are also proud to be able to offer specialised support through our Gender Clinic for women and LGBTQIA+ people — one of the only such programs in Australia,” says Dickinson.  
All services — from explaining the application process in clear language with the help of interpreters to drafting complex submissions, or representing people in courts and tribunals — are offered for free. 
Independent from the Federal Government, organisations like the ASRC rely heavily on donations from the wider community to keep assisting people in their search of safety, and to push for change to ensure a sensible and just migration system.
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What Does 2023 Hold For People Seeking Asylum?

Jana Favero, the Director of Advocacy and Campaigns at the ASRC, says, “With 2022 fast drawing to a close, we’re still waiting to hear when the Government will fulfil its promises to provide permanent protection to people on temporary visas.”
Favero has seen first-hand the stress and anxiety that every day brings for people who remain trapped in uncertainty, waiting for news. 
She is also concerned for the almost 200 people left in offshore detention in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. 
“After a decade of cruelty, we’re calling on the Albanese Government to evacuate people to Australia, so they can access the medical care they need to begin their journey to healing and safety," says Favero. 
“These are the changes we should be seeing in 2023.”
But, Favero believes there’s cause for hope. 
“There are clear mechanisms to move Australia towards a fair, just, and efficient immigration system. Until this government takes those steps, the community will continue to show with our actions that refugees are welcome here.”
If you’d like to help those seeking asylum, then please consider making a donation to the ASRC today.
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