Nearly 20,000 refugees will soon be able to apply for permanency, giving them the same rights as permanent residents after being kept “in limbo”.
The changes – hailed by refugee advocates as “a victory of unity and compassion over division and fear” – were part of a Labor election promise. They mean that about 19,000 temporary protection and safe haven enterprise visa holders will be eligible to apply for a permanent resolution of status visa.
That will give them the same rights as all other permanent residents, including social security payments, access to the national disability insurance scheme and higher education loans, as well as providing a pathway to Australian citizenship, which would allow holders to sponsor family to come to Australia.
The immigration minister, Andrew Giles, said it “made no sense” to keep thousands of people “in limbo” due to the policies of the previous Coalition government.
People holding temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas “work, pay taxes, start businesses, employ Australians and build lives in our communities – often in rural and regional areas”, he said. “Without permanent visas, however, they’ve been unable to get a loan to buy a house, build their businesses or pursue further education.
“It makes no sense – economically or socially – to keep them in limbo.”
Only those who entered Australia before Operation Sovereign Borders started in 2013 who hold or have applied for a protection visa are eligible.
The home affairs minister, Clare O’Neil, was especially keen to make that point, after repeated criticism from the Coalition when Labor announced its intention to make the change during the election.
“Let me be crystal clear – if you try to enter Australia without a valid visa you will be turned back or returned to your port of origin,” she said. “There is zero chance of settling in Australia under operation sovereign borders.
“The Australian Defence Force and Australian Border Force are patrolling our waters to intercept and return any boats that try to enter.”
Nearly $10m over two years has been set aside to provide assistance for people going through the application process. The government estimates about 19,000 people will be eligible to apply for the new pathway.
The 2,500 or so people who have had their TPV/SHEV cancelled or refused will not be eligible to apply and are expected to leave Australia voluntarily, although anyone with a new, credible claim can request ministerial intervention.
A further 5,000 people whose applications for a TPV or SHEV are under a merits or judicial review will have to wait for that process to complete. If at the end of the review process a temporary protection or safe haven visa is granted, then the resolution of status process opens up.
This is expected to include a cohort of people from Myanmar, Iran and Afghanistan, where there has been a marked change in circumstances in their country of origin.
Betia Shakiba, now a law student and human rights activist, was 14 when she was forced to flee Iran for Australia more than a decade ago. She has lived with the uncertainty of a succession of temporary visas – including her current safe haven enterprise visa – since, and described the government’s announcement as an immense relief.
“We can finally call Australia home,” she said. “This is going to change so much of my life, it is such a good feeling. This means we can start to build a future without this limbo, this visa status.”
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre described the government announcement as a “watershed moment”, and a “victory of unity and compassion over division and fear”.
“After 10 years of bravery and struggle, people seeking asylum and refugees have prevailed against an unjust system, they will now be able to rebuild their lives with the rights they were so long denied,” said Jana Favero, its director of advocacy and campaigns.
“I congratulate the Albanese Government for showing that after a decade of fear and division, it is ready to move on from the toxic politics of the past, and embrace positive practical policies, like the one announced. The significance of this announcement cannot be underestimated, we have tears of joy for all those who have been waiting for 10 years to have the permanency they deserve.’’
The Refugee Advice and Casework Service said the government’s decision would be “life-changing” for thousands of people, many of whom had been “living in limbo for a decade”.
“For the 10 years that I have worked in this space, I have never been able to experience a positive change that is as momentous and impactful for so many people as this conversion of temporary protection visas to permanent protection,” said the service’s centre director and principal solicitor, Sarah Dale. “We are grateful to the Albanese Government for leading with this restoration of dignity.”
Hani Abdile, a writer and journalism student, fled Somalia seeking safety at 16 years of age. She has held temporary protection visas in Australia for eight years.
“Australia has become my second home that is far from home. It’s the beauty of my fellow humans that live on the streets that I walk and where I work, who have shown me that Australia is fair and enough for all of us to live together with hope.
“Australia is where we actively defend those that are unfortunate.”
The Rudd government abolished temporary protection visas in 2008 but they were reintroduced by the Coalition in 2014 as one plank of Operation Sovereign Borders, designed to deter asylum seekers arriving by boat.
The Coalition, led by the shadow home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, has been scathing of the plan.
“One of the key pillars of Operation Sovereign Borders is that you would never settle here if you came illegally by boat and there would be temporary protection visas in place,” she told Sky news last year.
“So of course, if Labor does move to remove temporary protection visas or remove people who are on temporary protection visas on to permanent visas – that means that the third pillar of Operation Sovereign Borders is gone.”