Many refugees who were granted humanitarian visas by the Federal Government earlier this year were looking forward to resettling in Australia, only to be stalled suddenly by the COVID-19 induced border closure. Some of them are now stranded in India amid a worsening pandemic with no jobs, refuge, or hope.
Arezoo Amiri’s husband, mother and two younger sisters were granted refugee visas by the Australian government earlier this year, as part of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' (UNHCR) resettlement programme.
The Amiris had sought refuge in India's capital city New Delhi after fleeing from their hometown of Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan out of fear of persecution in December 2010.
- Nearly 4,000 refugees with humanitarian visas are stranded offshore by the COVID-19 border closure
- Refugee families in India plead with the Australian Government to lift the travel ban
- Members of a refugee family stuck in New Delhi was given travel exemptions which were later revoked
'No job, no refuge and no hope'
The Amiris were overjoyed and swung into wrapping their lives. Their tickets were booked, and they were set to fly to Perth in March.
But days ahead of their departure, COVID-19 restrictions were imposed, and borders were snapped shut to all foreign nationals, including, offshore refugees who already had permanent visas, some of whom now remain stranded in India.
Recalling the day, Ms Amiri told SBS Punjabi that they felt as if their hard-earned refuge was once again seized, as they were left with no means of income and only a shell of a house with no furniture, kitchen utilities or even curtains.
“We had sold everything and had packed our clothes and things we wanted to carry with us to Australia. My husband Rawish quit his job and we got my two younger sisters to quit their schools as we were supposed to fly out on March 30, but our tickets were cancelled,” said Ms Amiri.
Travel exemptions were 'surprisingly granted, only to be shockingly revoked'
When things didn’t move in their favour, the 24-year-old gathered relevant information and applied for travel exemptions to the border restrictions for the quintet on compassionate grounds in the month of May, which were “surprisingly granted, only to be shockingly revoked,” a few days later.
In an email seen by SBS Punjabi, the Department of Home Affairs wrote to the family that an error was made in the assessment of their request to travel and they were in fact not exempt.
As IOM (International Organisation for Migration) has suspended their activities in India due to the lockdown, they will not be able to assist in obtaining a new flight for you and your family for the foreseeable future.
“A number of other logistical issues make it difficult for travel to Australia at the moment, including the commercial flight ban across India, lack of staffing at the Australian High Commission, New Delhi, and your ability to gain an exit permit at this time,” read the response from the Home Affairs.
Ms Amiri said the family is disheartened as they are now having to survive on the charity of a church in the vicinity and of their extended family.
“We have no money, no food and a house that we face eviction from. I would like to request the Australian government to let us travel to Australia as planned so we can finally start our lives as we already have permanent visas,” she added.
But the quandary is that even though the Amiris have been granted permanent visas offshore, they are not considered to be permanent residents unless they have already entered Australia.
Responding to SBS Punjabi's query regarding the plight of refugee families stuck in India, a spokesperson from the Australian Border Force said, "These travel restrictions have been successful in slowing the spread of coronavirus in Australia, and were implemented on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC)."
Nearly 4,000 refugees with humanitarian visas are currently stranded offshore:
Paul Power, the chief executive officer of the Refugee Council of Australia told SBS Punjabi that nearly 4,000 of those refugees with humanitarian visas are currently stranded offshore.
He said while it is difficult for such families to book flights and get access to quarantine upon arrival, the simple humanitarian measure the Australian government could take would be to relax restrictions on people who already have permanent visas to enter the country.
“As with these families in New Delhi, people in quite a few situations have sold all their belongings and if they are very close to departure, in situations where they were ready to make the final move to Australia. It seems cruel to leave a blanket ban on people who have permanent visas to enter the country,” said Mr Power.
'Refugees should be included in intakes when travel restrictions ease'
Prior to the pandemic, Australia had been planning a refugee and humanitarian program of 18,750 places in the 2019-20 financial year, of which around 17,100 visas were to be granted to those offshore- a target that is expected to be significantly thwarted by COVID-induced travel restrictions.
Yamamah Agha, the General Manager of the Settlement Services International (SSI), a community organisation that supports new migrants said Australia needs to pay more attention to refugees now more than ever.
“With many parts of the world already grappling with humanitarian issues, COVID-19 is making life for many refugees more difficult than ever.
“While there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused havoc around the world, there are also man-made consequences that could be avoided,” said Ms Yamamah.
She added that refugees should be included in intakes when restrictions ease “as they were originally designated for resettlement due to dire circumstances.”
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