05/11/2015 5:56 PM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:50 PM AEST

Syrian Refugees Won't All Arrive Until End Of 2016


A Syrian refugee who fled to Lebanon with his family to escape torture and beatings from ISIS and al-Qaeda remains desperately in limbo more than 18 months after applying for an Australian visa.

In addition, despite promises to resettle fleeing Syrians and Iraqis in Australia "as quickly as practicable," the government has admitted refugees selected as part of the increased humanitarian intake likely won't finish arriving until the end of next year.

In September, the federal government's announcement of a one-off boost in its humanitarian refugee intake of 12,000 people fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq gave hope to Rabia*, a Syrian man who fled with his family to Lebanon. The Huffington Post Australia brought you his story of abuse at the hands of both the Syrian government and Islamic State, threats to his family from terrorist groups and continual running from danger.

With the help of Australian friend Mellisa Giancarlo, Rabia and his family -- his wife, and two sons aged six and seven -- fled to Lebanon and applied for an Australian humanitarian visa in March 2014, but has received no further correspondence from the Australian government since.

On Monday, just two days before Immigration Minister Peter Dutton visited a refugee camp in Jordan to hand out the first of the 12,000 visas to four families, Giancarlo received an email from Malcolm Turnbull's office all but confirming Rabia's family would not receive Australian visas.

Rabia and his son

"[Refugees] who have been proposed by close family (their spouse, child, sibling or parent) in Australia are the highest priority, followed by those proposed by extended family, then those who have been proposed by a friend," an employee in Turnbull's office wrote to Giancarlo.

"Even with the significant 12,000 place increase for resettlement, due to the scale of the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East the sad reality is that lower priority applications are unlikely to be successful."

The claim that priority will be given to refugees with close relatives already in Australia does not appear on the department's website detailing the expanded humanitarian response. In announcing the extra 12,000 places in September, then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott said "I do want to stress, women children and families - the most vulnerable of all" in answer to a question about priority for refugees.

The correspondence from Turnbull's office was a follow-up to an email personally signed by Turnbull in September -- before he became Prime Minister -- after Giancarlo had emailed him personally to petition for Rabia's family to receive refugee visas.

Rabia's wife and sons

"The Government is determined to respond generously and compassionately to assist the victims of this crisis," Turnbull had written at the time.

HuffPost Australia submitted a set of detailed questions to both the Turnbull's office and the Department of Immigration and Border Patrol, around the criteria on which refugees will be selected for the 12,000 places. A spokesperson for Turnbull referred the questions to the Immigration department, while an Immigration spokesperson said it could take until the end of 2016 before all Syrian and Iraqi refugees are resettled in Australia.

"Vetting takes considerable time," the Immigration spokesperson told HuffPost Australia.

Turnbull's staffer told Giancarlo "there are currently more than 30,000 applications on hand from Syrians and Iraqis."

HuffPost Australia understands the government does not expect to have all 12,000 places filled for another 12 months, and that the first four families given visas personally by Dutton may not arrive in Australia for many more weeks. The department has been non-committal about placing any firm timeframes on any portion of the increased refugee program.

The Immigration spokesperson would not comment specifically on Rabia's case, but outlined the program would target women and children. Information on the department's website states "priority... will be given to people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq who are: assessed as being most vulnerable – women, children and families with the least prospect of ever returning safely to their homes; located in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey."

Rabia and his family, who Rabia says are still being pursued by the Syrian government and have been threatened with death, are currently in hiding in Lebanon.

The timeframe for processing of the remaining refugee places is unclear and questions about said timeframe were not answered by the Immigration spokesperson.

Information on the department's website states "Most applications will take a number of months to process. It is not possible to be more precise than this because processing time varies according to the circumstances of individual applicants. The first arrivals are expected in Australia by the end of 2015."

Giancarlo said Rabia is now considering other options and countries in which to seek asylum.

* - We have not published Rabia's full name or his exact location, and we blurred the faces of his family, at his request