Jesuit Refugee Service advocate a change in policy

A ministerial order from 2018 kept permanent residents who arrived by boat from reuniting with their families. The families continue to pay a heavy price. Jesuit Refugee Service has been advocating for a change in policy.

The Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Australia has been calling on the Australian government to ‘move with urgency’ in issuing Special Humanitarian Visas to applicants from Afghanistan. This call gained more urgency after the horrific terrorist attack in September 2022 on a learning centre in Kabul that left more than 170 students, mostly girls from the Hazara community, dead or injured. There is an urgent need to transition holders of Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV) from Afghanistan and elsewhere to permanency so that TPV and SHEV visa holders can reunite with their families after more than 10 years of policies designed to keep families apart.

TPVs and SHEVs are temporary visas given to people seeking asylum who have been deemed eligible for Australia’s protection. Unlike permanent protection, which enables refugees and people seeking asylum to rebuild their lives with certainty, TPVS and SHEVs have to be renewed periodically. People on non-permanent visas like TPVs and SHEVs have difficulty getting permanent jobs or obtaining long-term loans to buy a house, so they are unable to plan their future and remain in permanent limbo.

Since the attack, TPV and SHEV holders affected by this incident are not able to go back to Afghanistan to reunite with family and mourn their loss, nor bury their family members because of their visa status. They also have not been allowed to bring any remaining family members to Australia for safety. “The Australian Government’s lack of on-time response has really caused human tragedy,” said Shuja Jamal, head of Policy, Advocacy and Communications at JRS. Shuja has been in contact with two particular cases, both Hazara people (who are under attack by the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan) who have suffered the loss of a family member in this recent attack. This comes after years of inaction with the visa application process.

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved.

Sam is an Australian permanent resident (PR) who applied for visas for his family in 2015. Under his PR status, he can live in Australia, pay taxes, own property in Australia, get a permanent job in Australia but he could not have his family here. On 30th September 2022, Sam lost his 20 year old daughter in the attack on the learning centre. The only thing that they found of his daughter was one of her shoes. No other trace was found. More than 50 people died and more than 120 people were injured. To add to the heartache, Sam’s daughter had previously survived an attack on the same learning centre that killed 48 people back in 2018. According to BBC News, many were teenagers getting extra tuition as they prepared for university entrance exams.

“The government had been saying for months that it was looking to repeal Ministerial Direction 80 of 2018, the order that had deliberately kept families like Sam’s from coming to safety in Australia.” “This was a tragedy and an example of the impact delayed action, deliberately punitive policies, and inaction has on people waiting for safety in Australia. That is the cost of delayed action,” said Shuja.

“We understand that the Federal Government reiterates its commitment to transitioning TPV and SHEV visas holders to permanency but 5 months into the new government, there was no clear plan for when that transition may happen. There was no sense of when that plan might be forthcoming.”

The other case Shuja has been in contact with is John. John, from Afghanistan, has been recognised by the UNHCR as a refugee and has been in Indonesia since 2013. Australia made a decision a few years ago that it will only resettle refugees from Indonesia if they have been registered by an UNHCR before the 1st July 2014. He was clearly registered a year prior. John is still awaiting resettlement in Australia. He also lost a family member in this recent attack on the learning centre. John could not go to Afghanistan, nor could his family reunite with him in Indonesia. “Australia did not need another bloody reminder to illustrate the dangers of delayed action,” said Shuja. This indefinite uncertainty is compounded in many of the mental health challenges these people have been facing for over 10 years.

For years, the Taliban and ISIS have been targeting the Hazara people in a series of deadly terrorist attacks at their places of worship, sporting facilities, hospitals, schools and more. These atrocities have been documented throughout the Taliban’s history. The Taliban also banned girls’ secondary education last year in Afghanistan. The students killed in this recent attack were among the last batch of girls to aspire to go to university, as no women will enter Afghan universities in the future because of the ban on secondary school education on girls.

The main policy impacting family reunion for refugees is Ministerial Direction 80 ‘Order for considering and disposing of Family visa applications under s47 and 51 of the Migration Act 1958’. This order was signed by Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, David Coleman on 21 December 2018. Direction 80 was the latest version of the same policy that was introduced in 2013. This policy continues to put applications for family visas made by people who came by boat at the end of the queue. Because of the significant backlog, placing refugees at the end of the queue essentially denies them the chance of ever being reunited with their families.

The Australian Government needs to issue the Special Humanitarian Visas for Afghans at risk. These are visas for which they have applied for as early as August 2021. Shuja continued to say that “we hope that the government displays a sense of urgency that is commensurate with this current situation.”

In November 2022, Shuja was relieved to report that Sam’s family was granted humanitarian visas and they arrived in Australia soon after to reunite with Sam. The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs also announced the easing of Direction 80 for people who arrived by boat, which means that other families in similar circumstances will have their applications processed in the order that they were received. This would be a significant improvement on having to wait almost 10 years. Shuja Jamal and the team at Jesuit Refugee Services Australia have done an immense amount of advocacy work to influence this change. “We think that our advocacy with the minister and his department, together with others in the sector, helped raise the profile of the issue, which contributed to the replacement of Direction 80.”

By Janark Gray

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Feature banner photo by Qasim Mirzaie on Unsplash.