CANBERRA -- The federal government has threatened thousands of asylum seekers in Australia they will be deported or have their welfare support cut off unless they immediately lodge a complicated 60-page legal document, breaking a promise refugee advocates say the immigration department made to protect boat arrivals who require legal help.
Thousands of asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat between August 2012 and July 2013 were eligible for temporary protection visas (TPVs) and many were eventually released from detention centres into the community. Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), said these people -- some 24,000 asylum seekers from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and more -- were not allowed to lodge formal refugee applications to be settled in Australia, and had to wait to be invited by the government to apply.
Some have waited four years for an invitation to apply in the first place. The application is 60 pages long, with more than 100 questions in dense legal language asking for specific dates, events and timelines of the applicant's history, and reportedly takes even trained lawyers several hours to complete. Many of the asylum seekers have limited or poor English. Karapanagiotidis said his service has 1150 people on its waiting list for legal help to complete the forms. He said legal services were given assurances that members of the group would be effectively not be given a deadline to lodge their applications, as long as they were on a waitlist for legal help, due to a backlog in cases for refugee legal services (the government cut funding for refugee legal services in 2014).
Which is why Karapanagiotidis and other advocates were shocked to hear from their clients that they had received formal letters from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection demanding they lodge their refugee applications within 30 or 60 days. The letters threaten that asylum seekers will have their Medicare, work rights and welfare payments cut off, their bridging visas not renewed, and as a last resort, will be "expected to leave Australia". Karapanagiotidis said his service is already dealing with people who've had their welfare cut off.
He claimed the deadline was aimed at forcing asylum seekers to apply without legal help, thus making it easier for the department to reject the claims.
"They're trying to create such terror and panic in people that they lodge without legal assistance. It's draconian, to make it easier to reject and remove people," Karapanagiotidis told The Huffington Post Australia.
He claimed refugee legal services were in constant contact with the department over these applications, but had not been given notice that the applications were being enforced with a deadline of 60 days.
"Last week, with no notice or consultation, no email, no letter, we find out these people are getting letters. They would be lucky to see a lawyer within a year. If you hire a private lawyer, that's $3000 or $5000. They're on the dole, they're lucky to have $8 a day after they pay rent, to pay transport and eat," Karapanagiotidis said.
"My law graduates, we have to train them in it for our after hours clinic, because even they don't understand the forms. Lawyers not trained in refugee law can't complete these forms. These are refugees with little English and who are not literate. They decide your application on your papers. These mistakes can cost lives."
"The forms are complex to be done without legal help. Experienced lawyers take eight hours to lodge the application."
In a statement sent to HuffPost Australia, Border Force said there was "legacy of 30,000 IMAs [illegal maritime arrivals] whose claims for protection had not been progressed."
"All IMAs in this legacy caseload have been invited to apply for Temporary Protection Visas or Safe Haven Enterprise Visas. It is their opportunity to present their claims for protection and resolve their immigration status in Australia. Letters are being sent to IMAs who have not made an application for either a TPV or SHEV [Safe Haven Enterprise visas]. Failure to apply may affect some of the support services they receive," the department's statement said.
The statement did not address claims that the application deadline would not be enforced, but the Refugee Advice and Casework Service also told the ABC that such an arrangement had been agreed upon.
"We found out about this by accident, when people turned up saying they were being cut off," Karapanagiotidis said.
"This is being done done with malice and incompetency. None of this is accidental. They know we can't respond to everyone. We thought we had a few years to stay on top of this."
Karapanagiotidis said his service, and others, were now running weekend legal clinics to quickly complete as many applications as possible. The ASRC is also raising funds to employ additional lawyers to complete paperwork.
"They're threatening to not renew bridging visas. You won't have lawful status if you lose your bridging visa, the minute you don't have a bridging visa or lawful status, they can be detained," he said.
"We don't have anyone being locked up yet, but you lose your lawful status, you lose your right to be in the community. The last threat is if you don't lodge, they'll recommend to the minister that they take away your right to apply. The last resort is to take away people's right to even apply for asylum."