Australia throws 9000 refugees a lifeline

By Cynthia Banham SMH
July 13, 2004

Thousands of refugees on temporary protection visas will be allowed to stay permanently in Australia, after federal cabinet agreed to a radical overhaul of the Government's asylum seeker rules yesterday.

It is understood the Government will announce as early as today that most of the 9000 temporary protection visa holders, many of whom have been living in the community for more than three years, will be able to apply for permanent residency.

The dramatic softening of the temporary protection rules comes after intense lobbying from the backbench and from within cabinet.

At least one frontbencher, the Employment and Workplace Relations Minister, Kevin Andrews, has lobbied for a more compassionate approach to refugees on temporary visas, according to Government sources.

The temporary protection scheme has been widely criticised since it was introduced in 1999, and tightened after the Tampa controversy in 2001 when 433 asylum seekers rescued by a Norwegian ship during the last election campaign were refused permission to enter Australia. Refugee and opposition groups argued that the visa system was draconian and left refugees with no certainty about their future.

Temporary visa holders are not allowed to bring their families into Australia, may not return if they leave the country, do not receive the same settlement services as other refugees and have limited social security rights.

Late last year, pressure began mounting on the Government from within its own ranks, beginning with the National Party MP John Forrest, whose Victorian electorate of Mallee has thousands of temporary refugees employed in local industries.

A number of other backbenchers have followed, particularly those in electorates where temporary protection visa holders are employed in jobs where workers are scarce, such as fruit pickers or meat workers, and where they have assimilated into the community.

Among the backbenchers to have spoken out in the party room are the conservative South Australian MP Patrick Secker and moderates Bruce Baird, Marise Payne and Petro Georgiou.

Other backbenchers calling for the Government to let the visa holders stay permanently have been the NSW National Party MP Kay Hull, Trish Worth, who holds the seat of Adelaide by a margin of 0.6 per cent, Christopher Pyne of South Australia, Judi Moylan from Western Australia and Victorian MP Sharman Stone.

According to some Coalition backbenchers, the temporary protection issue has become a sticky one for the Government in marginal electorates in Victoria, where the Coalition is polling poorly in the countdown to the federal election.

The decision follows a number of other immigration policy backflips by the Government, including its release of all but one child of boat people from mainland detention centres, and permitting 146 Afghans who have been held on Nauru for more than two years to come to Australia, as it winds back the "Pacific Solution".

Government MPs say there are indications that the Prime Minister, John Howard, has softened his line on the issue of asylum seekers since he won the 2001 election on the back of his tough border protection policies.

There has also been a noticeable change of attitude in the party room.

The change of heart has been made possible, however, by the reduction in the number of boat people arriving over the last three years.


  • November 2003: Ibrahim Sammaki, father of two children whose mother was killed in Bali bombings, gets permanent residency.

  • May 2004: Manus Island detention centre's sole detainee, Aladdin Sisalem, gets a visa.

  • June 2004: Roqia Bakhtiari is released with ehr baby from a secure motel; visas granted to 146 Afghans on Nauru.

  • July 2004: Just one child remains in detention centre; cabinet votes to let temporary refugees apply for permanent visas.


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