The 20 year queue: Family reunion for “genuine” refugees unlikely

By Vanessa Bacchetti and Kobra Moradi

Imagine being told by the Government that you must wait 20 years to see your family.

This happened to 22 year old Ali, a Syrian refugee. His story was told recently by Shen Narayansamy in the 2016 Di Gribble Argument.

Ali escaped the Syrian Civil war, in which over 300,000 innocent people have been killed. Ali has family in Australia, who are recognised refugees. He tried to reunite with them, applying through the formal pathways for a refugee family reunion visa. His application was not processed, because the wait-time exceeds 20 years.

 Ali then applied for a skilled migrant visa as an engineer; again, he was unsuccessful. He then applied for a student visa but the application was denied. He has exhausted all formal pathways to reunite with his family in Australia.

In desperation to survive, Ali made the dangerous journey on a boat to reach the only family he has in safety. Now, Ali has been locked up in the inhumane conditions on Manus Island for the past three years. Under the Australian Government policy, he will never be granted protection in Australia. He will never reunite with his family in Australia.

This is a reality for people recognised as refugees in Australia; the formal avenue for refugees to reunite with their families has a 20 year-long queue. The Australian Government makes it extremely difficult for refugees resettled in Australia to reunite with their families. Government policy on family reunion is forcing people into desperate situations, then severely punishing them for taking the only options available to them.

Australia’s immigration policies must maximise access to family reunion for refugees. The Government has recognised the refugee status of one member of the family in Australia. They must recognise the anguish of being torn from their family by war or persecution, or that the refugee’s family is likely facing the same danger. No sustainable refugee reception policy can deny access to family. International bodies urge Governments to protect the refugee family and reunite families who have been separated as a result of fleeing conflict and persecution.

Refugee communities in Australia have consistently raised family reunion as their primary concern. In consultations with the Refugee Council, many refugees stated that the “physical security offered by Australia is offset by the ongoing mental anguish of family separation.” For many refugees, the presence of family is crucial in providing emotional support and deal with the ongoing fear and trauma inherent in the refugee experience.

Resettlement itself involves stress, and the absence of family members make the process much more difficult. Concerns about the safety of family members, and anguish over the inability to reunite with them, consume the minds of many refugees. This makes it challenging to concentrate on practical tasks of resettlement, such as developing social networks, learning English and pursuing higher education.

Studies have shown that the presence of a supportive family allows a refugee to be more independent, providing individuals with a sense of purpose and direction for the future. With the anchor that the family provides, a refugee person is more able to effectively participate in society the workforce. The family unit itself can be a source of information about employment opportunities. A common practice amongst refugee entrants in Australia is to pursue employment through family business.

After the Howard Government’s denial of permission to resettle in Australia, the Tampa refugees are now proud citizens of New Zealand. They settled and worked hard. Their children are now university students, engineers, nurses, pilots, contributing to New Zealand’s society and economy.

This displaces the common misconception of the ‘economic-burden’ of refugee arrivals. The presence of family means that a refugee person relies less on external providers (i.e. Government services) for financial assistance. With greater economic participation, refugees rely less on welfare payments. With greater mental health outcomes, refugees rely less on health services. The family absorbs these costs rather than the State.

In March 2016 at a UN Refugee summit regarding responses to the Syrian refugee crisis, a number of States committed to enhancing their approach to family reunion for refugees. This includes USA, Canada, Bahrain and Italy.

Australia did not made such a pledge. Family reunion for refugees is not on the current political agenda. Rather, family reunion opportunities have been consistently restricted through successive policy changes. The Department of Immigration claims that there are 5,000 places for refugee family reunion visas, however in actuality the majority of these were dedicated to absorbing Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The true number is closer to 600. Only 4.43% of SHP family-reunion visas are granted. The wait-times exceed 20 years. It is clear that family reunion is inaccessible to refugees in Australia.

This Government claims that its issues are not with “genuine refugees,” but with “people smugglers,” “boat arrivals” and “queue jumpers.” However the Government’s stance on family reunion reflects its overall position on “genuine refugees.” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently announced that the coalition is set to introduce a new law which would bar “genuine refugees” in offshore detention from ever coming to Australia, let alone ever reuniting with their families.

Australia must enhance access to family reunion for refugees. The benefits are clear; family reunion will benefit the Australian community, Australia’s international reputation and the wellbeing of refugees and their families.

Kobra Moradi and Vanessa Bacchetti are current students at La Trobe Law School and are undertaking an internship with Australian Lawyers for Human Rights. They are currently completing a detailed research project on Family Reunion for Refugees in Australia for the Refugee Sub-Committee.


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