Refugee Week: Why our immigration system is failing refugees and is a barrier to achieving true “unity”

Refugee Week runs from Sunday, 20 June to Saturday, 26 June, 2021.

By Gregory Rohan, Director and Solicitor, Immigration Advice and Rights Centre (IARC).

Last month, in a submission to a Senate inquiry examining the fairness of Australia’s family visa system, the United Nations condemned Australia’s discriminatory policies preventing refugees from reuniting with family. The UN Refugee Agency’s remarks echoed IARC’s own submission which criticised government policy as punitive, discriminatory and unfair.

The stark message from the UN and other NGOs is that the Australian Government is failing refugees desperate to be reunited with their families and exacerbating the trauma they have experienced as a result of persecution.

It is against this backdrop that Australia heads into Refugee Week with its theme “Unity”. This year’s theme challenges us to work together to build a more cohesive community and to focus on the shared values that unite us.

There is no value more unifying than our need to be connected to family. It is fundamental to our identity as humans. This Refugee Week, we should all stand united with refugees and demand an immigration policy that reflects our values and an end to policies that deny people the right to be with the family they love.

Direction 80 must be abolished

Refugees on permanent visas, like any permanent resident, can sponsor family for visas under Australia’s family migration program. High costs and lengthy processing times of up to 50 years, however, mean this option is illusory for many refugees.

Apart from the expense and long delays that impact citizens and permanent residents alike, refugees who arrived by boat are subjected to additional restrictions in the form of Direction 80, a rule that requires the Department of Home Affairs to put family visa applications sponsored by boat arrivals to the end of the queue, rather than process them in the order in which they are received. As a result, many refugees endure waits of more than five years to be reunited with their loved ones, including their partners and children.

The cruelty of Direction 80 is illustrated by Amir’s experience. Amir[*] fled persecution from Iraq in 2007. He left his wife and three children behind because the journey was too dangerous. Amir arrived in Australia in 2011 and was granted a protection visa in 2012. He sponsored his wife and children for a Partner visa in 2013 when he was finally able to save the money for the application.

As Amir arrived by boat, he was subject to Direction 80. Although Partner visas took about 12 months to process at the time, Amir’s family were not granted their visa until 2018, more than five years after their application was made and after they had been separated for more than 11 years.

Direction 80 serves no discernible purpose than to punish people for their mode of arrival, despite the fact that the Australian Government has assessed their protection claims and determined them to be refugees. It is a cruel policy that creates a second class of permanent residents and compounds the pain and suffering of people who have already endured so much.

Delaying family reunion is also counterintuitive to the government’s stated objective of ensuring the successful settlement of refugees in Australia. Family separation, especially for extended periods of time, causes significant mental distress and anxiety and often impact’s people’s ability to work, study and meaningfully participate in the community. For this reason, family reunion is critical to successful settlement in Australia and we should be pursuing policies that enable it, not constrain it.  

If we are serious about achieving unity in Australia, Direction 80 must be abolished and all Australian permanent residents and citizens, including refugees, should have equal access to family reunion pathways.

Divisive English language requirement should not be implemented

The government’s proposal to introduce an English language requirement for Partner visa applicants and their sponsors further undermines the objective of unity. The new requirement will prevent permanent residents from sponsoring their partner for a permanent visa unless they meet an as-yet undefined English language threshold.

The proposed English language requirement will disproportionately impact refugees whose ability to master a new language may be affected by their experience of trauma and the other disadvantages they experience. It will also further delay family reunion for those already impacted by Direction 80 and extend the hardship of separation.

These changes are ostensibly aimed at unifying the community and promoting ‘social cohesion’ but will in fact have the opposite effect, creating two classes of migrants and sponsors, divided by country of origin or socio-economic background.

This is a distinction fundamentally at odds with our values of respect for all individuals, regardless of their background, equality of opportunity and a ‘fair go’. These are values that we ask migrants and new citizens to commit to. We can – and should – demonstrate our own commitment to these values this Refugee Week by calling on the government to abandon this proposed new language requirement.


[*] Name and details have been changed to protect their privacy 

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