The government's latest crackdown on asylum seekers skims over a few salient facts -- namely, that most of these people haven't been ignoring their obligations, but that they simply weren't allowed to apply for asylum through a complicated 60-page legal document until a few months ago.
"I wanted to announce today that the Government has taken a decision in relation to those people who are fake refugees," Immigration Minister Peter Dutton said on Sunday, announcing that the government would give 7500 asylum seekers who arrived on boats between 2012 and 2013 until October 1 to submit their refugee applications to the government. His office called them "illegal maritime arrivals", but Dutton preferred the term "fake refugees", supposedly a clever combination of the government's latest catch-cries of "fake news" and the ever-reliable dog-whistle strategy of a refugee crackdown.
"We will provide Medicare support, we will give people work rights and we will give people support if they have children of school age to pay for those education costs. But we are not going to provide taxpayer assistance beyond that and the expectation is if people can't make their claim for protection then they need to depart our country as quickly as possible," Dutton said.
Makes sense, right?
Well, it's not that simple. Refugee advocates claim many of these asylum seekers, who have been living in the wider Australian community for several years after being released from immigration detention, had been blocked by the government from even submitting their applications until just a few months ago. The applications -- 60-odd pages in dense, complicated language requiring immense detail -- take even experienced lawyers up to eight hours to complete and are unfeasible for refugees with limited or developing English to complete, and that due to recent cuts in funding for refugee legal services, the October application deadline will effectively deny many asylum seekers a chance to submit a decent application. Advocates and lawyers have already signalled a possible court challenge to the deadline.
HuffPost Australia reported on the crackdown back in February, when the government initially gave asylum seekers as little as 30 days to file applications. These people were among thousands of asylum seekers who attempted to reach Australia by boat between August 2012 and July 2013. They 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 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 up to four years for an invitation to even apply in the first place. Karapanagiotidis said many of the 7500 refugees Dutton highlighted were not granted access to apply until as late as December 2016, disputing the minister's claims they were "refusing" to participate in the process.
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.
"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," Karapanagiotidis told HuffPost Australia.
"Experienced lawyers take eight hours to lodge the application."
"Calling them 'fake refugees' is a lie. These people haven't been allowed to apply. How can the minister make an assessment of their case before they've even applied? How can he claim they're refusing to lodge documents if they haven't had a chance to apply?"
Senator Jacqui Lambie claimed on Monday the asylum seekers had "plenty of opportunity in the last few years to lodge an application". But Karapanagiotidis said this was the crux of the issue -- that asylum seekers have been given just a few months to apply, and that due to recent government funding cuts for refugee legal services, the wait to access a refugee lawyer can extend up to a year, well past the government's October deadline.
"They haven't had years, they've had months," he said.
"The department has spent years telling people not to come to lodge their application, not to renew their visas. These asylum seekers have been desperate to apply. The shortest waiting period for these people, from when they arrived to when they were allowed to apply, was 960 days, up to 1500 days for some of them."
"Dutton has been saying these people have refused to engage, but this system didn't even begin for the first arrivals until April 2015, three years after these people arrived."
HuffPost Australia has contacted the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for comment.
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