While the Biloela family’s hopes of gaining permanent residency have been buoyed by the Albanese government’s interest in their case, tens of thousands of others on temporary visas, who have similarly sought refuge in Australia, continue to live in limbo.
In Iran, Hamid and Hassan both fled to Australia because they did not feel safe.
They arrived by boat, two years apart — Hassan in 2011 and Hamid in 2013 — and both now live in the rural township of Gatton, west of Brisbane. The community is seen as a microcosm for what’s happening around the rest of the country.
But during those two years Australia changed the rules for asylum seekers, and while Hassan was recognised as a refugee and granted a permanent visa, Hamid remains on a bridging visa which he has to reapply for every six months — knowing that each time he might be rejected.
It’s a stress Hamid has lived with for nearly a decade — and one an estimated 100,000 others living in communities around Australia face every day, according to asylum seeker advocates.
Gatton, in the Lockyer Valley, is the heart of Australia’s salad bowl and over the years Hamid has risen through the ranks of the horticulture industry to become a valued trainer and supervisor on several farms.
But despite the chronic worker shortage in the region and across Australia — and farmers’ reliance on workers such as Hamid — his hopes to start his own business and buy a house remain hobbled.
“I just want to work hard,” Hamid said.
Some of these farm owners have written references to support Hamid’s almost decade-long quest to become a permanent resident, but still he remains on a restrictive bridging visa.
Hamid has work rights, but access to social support services is limited and, since 2017, every six months he has had to reapply for another visa, which he knows could be rejected each time.
“I’m still getting a six-month visa, and all the time before about a couple of weeks to my visa expires, I get lots of tension [and] stress,” he said.
Because of when and how he arrived, Hamid has now exhausted his legal options under Australia’s current policy.
Despite coming from exactly the same background as Hassan, Hamid says immigration authorities “do not accept” that he should be granted permanent asylum, so he now lives from one bridging visa to the next.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne estimates about 100,000 people around Australia are living with crushing stress like Hamid.
“It’s very frightening for the families who have to do it because, of course, it reminds them of the fear that is inherent in the prospect of being returned to that country that they fled in such dire circumstances in most cases.”
After 10 years of living in limbo Hamid is desperate for some certainty about the future for himself and his friends in Gatton.
“I’ve been here as a nice person, so I would like to tell this new government please … try to think about that,” he said.
Government vow on permanent visa pathway
While the new Labor government has committed to Operation Sovereign Borders, which includes boat turnbacks and offshore processing, its policy platform says, “Labor will abolish temporary protection visas (TPV) and safe haven enterprise visas (SHEV) and transition eligible refugees onto permanent visa arrangements”.
And the new Minister for Immigration, Andrew Giles, has previously told the ABC that he is “committed to delivering on the policies we took to the election”.
There are about 19,000 “eligible” refugees on TPVs and SHEVs who are still waiting to be granted “permanent visa arrangements”.
But according to the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, there are many thousands more who, like Hamid, “live on precarious bridging visas, some of which have expired”.
Some of these people have the right to work, others do not, and others have no access to income or health support at all.
The ABC contacted the federal government to ask when TPV and SHEV holders would be transitioned onto permanent visas, and what the future holds for the thousands of others who do not have visas.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson confirmed the government’s commitment to “ensure there is a permanent visa pathway for existing TPV and SHEV holders” but did not comment on a transition timeframe or on any measures related to those who do not hold valid visas.
The spokesperson said the government had a “generous humanitarian program” as well as policies to disrupt people smuggling operations.
Shifting sands of politics
Many of the asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat have not only fled danger in their homelands, they have experienced trauma on their treacherous journey to what they hope will be a better life, refugee advocates report.
Hamid describes his experience of travelling to Australia on a small, leaky Indonesian fishing boat in July 2013 as a “horrifying” journey that he and others onboard believed would end with their deaths at sea — until the boat was intercepted by the Australian Navy near Christmas Island.
Around that time the Gillard government had already re-introduced offshore processing in 2012, and when Kevin Rudd returned as prime minister in 2013, regional resettlement also became policy.
After Labor was defeated later in 2013, the Coalition reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas, “a type of visa available to people who arrive in Australia without a visa and are found to be owed protection obligations” for a period of three years.
Ms Dickinson said the principle that people could safely return to the country from which they had fled after a few years was inherently flawed.
Hamid is adamant that he cannot safely return to his former home in Iran’s Khūzestān province, in Iran’s south-west, where he says he was targeted by police and government authorities.
‘I feel the pain in their eyes’
Fellow Iranian Hassan does not live with Hamid’s daily fear of being forced to return to his homeland because he came to Australia in 2011, two years before the reintroduction of offshore detention, and was granted a permanent visa.
For more than 10 years, he too worked on farms in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, but he recently took a job as a refugee support worker at the Lockyer Community Centre, helping other asylum seekers.
And while the Tamil Nadesalingam family in Biloela has been given hope that their long fight for permanent residency might soon be over after the Albanese government granted them bridging visas, Hassan says many asylum seekers in the Gatton community continue to live in despair.
Experts have long warned that people living on temporary visas are more likely to suffer severe mental health problems.
In 2006, well before the introduction of Operation Sovereign Borders in 2013, trauma specialists published a report in the Medical Journal of Australia which said:
“Our study provides consistent evidence that the migration trajectory experienced by TPV holders, particularly adversity in detention and ongoing living difficulties, is accompanied by persisting and wide-ranging mental health problems and associated disability.”
Ms Dickinson said the Albanese government needed to act quickly to give people certainty and alleviate their mental anguish.
“The government can easily transition people from temporary visas to permanent residence through simple changes to the regulations,” Ms Dickinson said.
In its latest policy brief, the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Resolution says the minister has personal discretion to act under the Migration Act.
But what the future holds for people like Hamid is unclear.
The Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said all protection visa applications were assessed on an individual basis, “with regard to contemporary country of origin information”.
“Processing times can vary according to the particular circumstances of the applicant, including the complexity of any claims raised and accompanying evidence provided.”
This article is the first of two looking at the legacy of Australia’s immigration policy, using the south-east Queensland town of Gatton as a microcosm for other regional towns around the country. Part two will run tomorrow.
Posted , updated