August 22, 2013
On Friday, Tony Abbott announced the resurrection of temporary protection visas and stripping refugees of their right to a judicial review under the Refugee Review Tribunal. It’s an old policy with the same rhetoric and a proven record of success in the 2001 election.
For me, the announcement had a special resonance – reminding me of my life in limbo for more than three years. As a former refugee, I can tell you life under the temporary visa was hell. It’s the cruellest thing you can do to a person; deprive them of rights to education, family and travel.
These visas mean everything in your life is temporary. You can’t plan your life or your children’s future. You are cut off from your family and are in constant worry about their safety. You are permanently trapped between the fear of returning to the country you fled from, and complete uncertainty here. It’s a kind of intermittent life; neither here nor there.
Under this visa, I was barred from bringing family to join me. As a result, a member of my family was killed outside Afghanistan on the way to seek asylum. I was unable to attend his funeral because of the travel ban. There is no consolation for that guilt.
Numerous studies have shown the mental damage inflicted on refugees by the regime. There are people such as Dr Habibullah Wahedy, an Afghan, who while under a temporary visa committed suicide in 2003 in despair because he could not arrange for his children and wife to join him here.
Not being able to study under the visa was one of the most difficult parts, unless you were an international fee-paying student. It felt almost the same as living under the Taliban that banned education for girls and closed universities. In the absence of formal studies, I taught myself English, reading books and newspapers in my lunch breaks and on the train on my way to my job in a fruit shop. Things changed when I got a scholarship for full-time study at the University of Technology, Sydney, and graduated with an honours degree in 2008. Since then I have worked in the community to help other vulnerable people.
My story is not unique. There were thousands in a similar situation who were passionate about education but couldn’t formally study. Now, as Australian citizens, they are struggling as parents and are not able to converse effectively in English, leaving them wholly dependent on government interpreting services for the rest of their lives. Most are unable to connect to the wider community and thus remain closed in their own ethnic enclaves. Is this what a potential government wants temporary protection visas to achieve? To tarnish the hope of people who could be future doctors, engineers or artists?
After more than three years of anguish, I received my permanent protection visa. So did 90 per cent of the 11,000 who arrived from 1999 to 2007. Now Abbott, if elected, will punish another 32,000 asylum seekers for political gain; the rule will be applied retrospectively.
What’s new under the Coalition policy is asylum seekers’ cases will not be reviewed by the Refugee Review Tribunal. This is a blow to the integrity of the judicial system. Records show the tribunal corrected many departmental errors. In 2010-11 the tribunal made different decisions to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship in 24 per cent of refugee cases. The Immigration Department is known for its administrative errors, like the unlawful detention of Cornelia Rau in 2004.
We are told harsh policies deter others from coming. It did not factor in my decision to come to Australia in 2001. In fact, most asylum seekers do not realise the harsh reality of life under temporary protection visas until they experience it. The visas only serve the political purpose of the Coalition: to sound tough. What they also do is break the spirit of those who one day could be your colleague, neighbour and fellow citizen.
Abdul Karim Hekmat is a youth worker and former refugee.