Asylum seekers' applications doomed to fail after visa deadline changes, says refugee support service
By Chloe Hart
The Immigration Department has cut the length of time asylum seekers have to apply for protection visas from one year to 60 days which could deny up to 11,000 people the ability to claim asylum.
Those waiting for a lawyer to help them with their visa application have received letters from the department informing them of the new deadline.
The change could result in many losing their right to protection or bridging visas as well as their right to work and access health and welfare services.
The shortened deadline has been described by The Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) as "underhanded", saying it was "neglecting" some of the most persecuted people in the world.
In 2013 the Federal Government cut funding for immigration and legal assistance for people who arrive by boat and plane and in response RACS drop-in centres were set up to fill the gap.
Lawyers at the centres offer pro-bono assistance on thousands of applications.
"RACS has been providing free legal service to people through night-time clinics run by volunteers and we have a massive waiting list of currently 1,800 people [in Sydney] waiting up to one year for assistance," said RACS executive director Tanya Jackson-Vaughan.
"We were promised by the Department of Immigration that people on our waiting list wouldn't be threatened or coerced in anyway to apply without legal assistance.
"We have people fleeing places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq — cities that have been destroyed, places we see in the news every day where women are raped, men are tortured. We know what they are fleeing from. We see it daily."
Applications filled in without legal help doomed: lawyersAbout 11,000 people are waiting to apply and have been sent letters explaining that if they do not apply within two months their status resolution support service payments will be cut, Ms Jackson-Vaughan said.
"[It is] ultimately their bridging visa which then endangers their right to seek asylum [and] their right to work and health care," she said.
"We have young families with children in this situation who will end up starving and homeless .
Lawyers say most applicants do not speak English and if the applications are rushed or filled in without legal assistance they are doomed to fail.
"The forms are in English and require you to list everywhere you have ever lived and worked, why you fled your country and why you fear persecution.
These are legal definitions and hard to explain in your own language let alone [something other than] English," Ms Jackson-Vaughan said.
"Expecting people who have no legal background [and] are often traumatised and have memory deprivation [to do this]… it's unreasonable, and too challenging when it takes a lawyer 10 to 15 hours to assist one person."
Decision detrimental to the already vulnerable: RACSRACS is calling for the Government to stop sending the letters and comply with its promise to give people the right to seek asylum and welfare payments.
The Refugee Council of Australia said further discrimination against asylum seekers could prove dire.
"It's a tragedy ad hoc decisions are being made by the Turnbull Government, we don't know what will happen to these very vulnerable people who've been kept trapped in limbo for many years now," said council spokesman Tim O'Connor.
"We've seen high rates of suicide among this group and we are very concerned these latest decisions the Turnbull Government has made will increase that psychological duress these people are under and that suicide rate may increase as a result.
"It's particularly cruel the Turnbull Government is again changing the rules.
There needs to be a process but this process has been clear and now it's being changed again.
In a written statement the Immigration Department said "resolving the status of illegal maritime arrivals in Australia is a key priority and all legacy cases have been invited to apply for temporary protection visas (TPV) or safe haven enterprise visas (SHEV)".
"Letters are being sent to those who have not made an application for either a TPV or SHEV and failure to apply may affect some of the support services they receive."
But RACS says the Government's demands were unrealistic and its service was at breaking point.
"[The staff] are now at their wits' end — we don't know how we will manage the people waiting for our assistance by the deadline of November 2017."
This article was published on ABC News' website on February 26, 2017.