POLITICS

Syrian Refugee Family Waits 27 Months For Australian Visa

'We have done what the Australian government has asked of us.'

30/05/2016 12:46 PM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:53 PM AEST
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Rabia and his family

Nearly 27 months after applying for an Australian refugee visa, Syrian man Rabia and his family -- kidnapped and tortured by their own government, threatened by ISIS, forced to run and hide from Al-Qaeda, their successful business ransacked by gunmen -- are still waiting and hiding in Lebanon.

The Huffington Post Australia brought you Rabia's story in September, speaking to him from his apartment in Lebanon where he is sheltering with his wife and two young sons after escaping war-torn Syria. We aren't publishing his full name or his exact location, and we've blurred the faces of his family at his request; he says members of the Assad government are still looking for him and he fears for his family still in Syria.

Rather than attempting the long and dangerous sea voyage to Australia through people smugglers, Rabia had applied for an Australian humanitarian visa in March 2014. He waited in "the queue." As former Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in July 2015, "If you want to start a new life, you come through the front door, not through the back door."

So when Abbott announced a much-lauded commitment to offer an additional 12,000 humanitarian visas to those escaping the conflict in Syria, Rabia's spirits turned from despondent to hopeful, optimistic even. As a family with young children who were baptised Catholic, and already registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the family ostensibly met the guidelines set by the government that families and those of Christian faith already on the UNHCR's books would be prioritised.

Eight months after the announcement, Rabia has been to numerous meetings, filled in countless forms... but remains in Lebanon, in limbo.

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Rabia's wife and their sons, aged six and seven

"We are fleeing from the scourge of war, murder, threats in our homeland, and we live in a country that does not recognize our minimal rights, banned from working and receiving constant pressure to leave. How do we live our lives this way? Who cares about our case?" Rabia told HuffPost Australia.

"We have done what the Australian government has asked of us. We have waited in Lebanon and applied for asylum via UNHCR. We fulfill all the criteria set out by the government for accepting Syrian refugees."

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has been tight-lipped about exact details of how many refugee applications have been approved under the 12,000 extra places, and how many have been settled. In March, six months after the announcement, it was reported less than 30 Syrians had arrived in Australia, after 9000 people were interviewed. HuffPost Australia has submitted questions to the department for an update on the figures and a timeline on when arrivals will be completed.

While waiting in Lebanon, Rabia has kept abreast of Australian news. He was gobsmacked to hear Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's remarks about illiterate refugees.

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Rabia and his son

"I'm still waiting for resettlement as a university educated, English speaking refugee. I have started businesses and employed other people when I was in Syria, and I would like to do this in Australia," Rabia said.

"I would like to become a tax-paying member of society, provide for my family and still [Dutton] is not accepting me to come."

Rabia's family belongs to the Alawite religious minority, the same group Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad. That would probably have been enough for his family to attract the attention of Sunni rebels fighting the Assad government, but Rabia said he also resisted government forces during the 2011 uprising -- meaning he became a target of the rebels for his religion, and a target of the government for his politics.

He said he was kidnapped and beaten by government forces, then returned to his home in Latakia to have his successful dental supply business smashed up and attacked by rebels. His family fled the city in May 2013, escaping to the countryside on the outskirts of town where they had a small farm. He said Al-Qaeda forces had overrun the area, and Islamic State rebels moved in soon after the family took refuge in the farmhouse.

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A ruined Syrian city, in the aftermath of an attack by government helicopters (Getty Images)

The family managed to escape over the border into Lebanon, joining more than one million Syrians as refugees in the city. Rabia said Lebanese officials and citizens don't appreciate the Syrians swelling their cities, and it is almost impossible to find work or essential services as a refugee.

"Lebanese people, they feel hateful against Syrians. One time we were in the garden and my boys found some Lebanese children to play with. When the children know my boys are Syrian, they told them 'go away,' they wouldn't play with them," Rabia said.

"We are strangers here."

Since making his first application in March 2014, Rabia has watched as friends have had their applications for resettlement in other countries -- especially Canada -- processed and finalised at speed. While Rabia's family has waited 27 months, with no resolution in sight, people who applied for Canadian visas long after him have already been resettled in Canada. The choice to apply for Australia is now one that he regrets.

"I met people travelling to Canada. It took only two months to complete everything, and they travelled there. I'm waiting for more than two years and I have nothing," he said.

"If I knew before, I would try to travel to Canada, not Australia. I have no friends or relatives in Canada, but all I want is to get from Lebanon."

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Syrian refugees trek across train tracks, looking for safety (Getty Images/Christopher Furlong)

In December 2015, Rabia's family was called to the UNHCR for interviews, and was told on New Year's Eve that their case had been referred to the Australian embassy. On January 25, 2016, one day before Australia Day, Rabia travelled to the embassy in Beirut for further interviews. Another stack of paperwork later, the embassy told him all the procedural paperwork and administration was done, and that all to wait for was a final decision.

In early April, the embassy called again to ask further questions. Almost two months on, there has been no word since. It has been 27 months since Rabis first lodged a refugee application to travel to Australia. He is running out of patience.

"I want to say something to Australian people," he said.

"Australians are a kind people. I know Australian people want to help us, to help people who have problems like us, but I think this government doesn't want to help us anymore."

"The problem is with the government. We know Australian people are kind, they want to help."

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