The rural city of Swan Hill is a four-hour drive north of Melbourne and is described as the food bowl of the nation, producing the majority of Australia's almonds and grapes.
Its population of just over 20,000 is supplemented by an estimated 10,000 seasonal workers and many refugees have been drawn to the area for the work opportunities, affordable housing and safe community life.
It’s exactly what former agriculture worker Ali (not his real name) hoped for in 2009 when he made the painful decision to leave behind his pregnant wife and their six children to seek asylum in Australia. But more than a decade later, his family remains overseas.
“I have been away from my children for 11 years,” Ali tells SBS News. “I have not seen them for seven years. I only talk [to them] on my phone.”
“Swan Hill is a good town. It has good people, they are hospitable, and they understand the meaning of human pain.”
Several Hazara men have resettled in Swan Hill, Victoria. Source: SBS
The 65-year-old is a member of the Hazara community, Afghanistan’s third-largest ethnic group which continues to be targeted by the so-called Islamic State and the Taliban. He and his family fled the war in Afghanistan for Pakistan, where they remain, before he came to Australia by boat in 2009. Families can often only afford for one person to attempt to leave first.
Ali was found to be a refugee by Australia and has spent more than $10,000 on visa applications for his wife and seven children, but a number of immigration policies surrounding boat arrivals have meant he has never been able to bring them to the place he now calls home.
I have been away from my children for 11 years. - Ali
The Labor government changed the law in 2013 to exclude boat arrivals from Australia’s humanitarian program, meaning they no longer had the right they once had under the program to sponsor their families. Then in 2014, a Liberal Party directive (Ministerial Directive 62), introduced by then minister for immigration Scott Morrison, meant all permanent residents who were boat arrivals would be given the lowest processing priority for family reunification visas.
Ali is a permanent resident but there are only so many family visas granted each year.
A group of Hazara refugees attend a weekly meet-up group in Swan Hill. Source: SBS
Melbourne lawyer Leah Perkins, who represents Ali and several other Hazara men, says the rules mean if someone arrived by boat, their family's visa application will be considered the lowest priority in the queue. That is unless they can either obtain Australian citizenship or be granted an exemption by convincing the Department of Home Affairs of compelling reasons for them to move further up the queue.
Ali’s citizenship application has faced delays, and while his family's visa applications were granted an exemption, nothing has been actioned since.
“We were thrilled when the exemption was granted in early 2018,” Ms Perkins says, “however it is now three years since and the family are still waiting for a visa”.
David Hackett co-hosts a weekly meet-up group for Hazara men in Swan Hill. Source: SBS
The rules apply to boat arrivals from all backgrounds, but Ms Perkins says difficulty with verifying the identity of Hazaras has impacted them severely.
“I've had clients who have lost their children, clients who have missed the birth of their children, clients who have missed 10 years of family life with their wife and children. And these are people that have already suffered enough.”
I've had clients who have missed 10 years of family life with their wife and children. And these are people that have already suffered enough. - Leah Perkins, Lawyer
“Ethnic Hazaras are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world,” she says, explaining that a lot of families fled Afghanistan to neighbouring countries when the Taliban came to power but have no legal right to stay there.
“And so, they’re already living there as second class citizens and they're also persecuted in those areas because of their ethnicity and faith.”
Ali has on occasion returned to Pakistan to see his family, but his last trip was seven years ago.
“This is my request from the [Australian] government: enough is enough,” he says. “What is my sin? What is my fault? Whatever we had, we gave it to you and whatever you asked, we gave it to you.”
“It has been almost two years since we had the medical examination [required for visa applications], and I am waiting for my children's visa. Why, what is our sin, what is the sin of my children?”
Afghan people are the third-largest refugee group in the world after Syrians and Venezuelans, and almost 22 per cent of the 46,000 Afghanistan-born people in Australia are Hazara, according to the last census.
Life in limbo
Jill Pattenden, a retired Swan Hill teacher, first met a group of Hazara men who had come to the area for fruit picking jobs in the early 2000s when she was running English classes through the local Uniting Church. She started helping them with their accommodation needs but then became involved in assisting them with their complex visa paperwork to help reunite them with their families left waiting overseas.
“In 2001 we were actually a social justice group,” she says. “But from then on we just got involved with asylum seekers, we had no time for anything else because that’s when the men started to come out of all kinds of detention.”
Retired Swan Hill teacher Jill Pattenden helps refugees with their visa applications. Source: SBS
Today, along with retired vineyard owner David Hackett, she hosts a weekly meet-up group which Ali attends alongside about 15 other local Hazara men. Ms Pattenden says about 400 Hazaras have come through Swan Hill over the past 20 years, with more than half staying to build a new life there.
The first men to arrive were subsequently able to bring their families over. But then it all stopped.
“It was starting to work,” Ms Pattenden says. “Families were allowed to come, men were given visas, then they stopped and it didn’t matter which government was in, it stopped.”
Helping to translate for the group is 33-year-old Rohullah Hussaini, also a Hazara refugee, who works for the local council as a parks and gardens employee. Rohullah came to Australia in 2012 by boat and is a recognised refugee, but like most of the men he translates for, he too is separated from his family.
Rohullah Hussaini is also separated from his family. Source: SBS
He has been in full-time employment for eight years and is an SES volunteer but as he is only on a temporary visa, he is not able to sponsor his wife and child to come to Australia.
“I am one of the examples of thousands of people [who have] been working, living and paying taxes in the countryside, still living in limbo,” he says.
“I cannot go and catch up with my beautiful wife and daughter. Limbo life living away from family is making life harder and harder.”
I cannot go and catch up with my beautiful wife and daughter. Limbo life living away from family is making life harder and harder. - Rohullah Hussaini
Ms Perkins says she is often asked by Hazara men to write to their wives and explain why there is a delay after they have paid for their family visa applications.
“They've been separated from him for 10 years and they're wondering what's going on,” she says.
Ms Perkins says she has seen a deterioration in the mental health of the Hazara men she represents.
“It's heartbreaking to receive calls from him constantly requesting an update; ‘Is there any news? Is there anything I can tell my family? Can you write the email so I can forward it to my wife?’”
Calls for change
In 2015, the Australian Human Rights Commission made a finding that Mr Morrison’s law change was “an arbitrary interference with the family” and recommended the minister amend the direction so “any special circumstances of a compelling or compassionate nature” were given due consideration.
The following year, a Federal Court case (BMF16 v Minister Immigration and Border Protection) found the then minister had made an “unreasonable delay in making a decision” on the processing of two Hazara refugees’ Australian citizenship applications for 14.5 months.
Ali and Rohullah are both struggling without their wives and children. Source: SBS
Ms Perkins says that as a result of a 2016 legal challenge, Direction 62 was amended and retitled Direction 72.
“That amendment allowed for an exemption to that priority processing … if there were some compelling or special reasons that affect your case.”
But, she says, the amendment didn’t translate into exemptions for many of her Hazara clients.
“It appeared to be ad hoc decision-making [and] we didn’t receive any reasons when an application was rejected or approved.”
While the name of the direction has been changed again, to Direction 80, those involved with the Hazara community in Australia maintain not much has changed since.
Several Hazaras have made a home in Swan Hill. Source: SBS
Ms Pattenden can only recall one Hazara man from those she has met who has been able to bring his family to Australia since the rule change. Ms Perkins says apart from Ali, only one other of her Hazara clients was successfully granted an exemption, but his family’s visas were only processed after one of his children was killed in a car bombing.
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told SBS News it assesses visa applications “as efficiently and effectively as possible” and that its family migration program is “non-discriminatory and the department does not monitor visa applications by ethnicity”.
The spokesperson said Ministerial Direction 80 “provides that the lowest priority processing should be given to family stream visa applications in which the applicant’s sponsor is a person who entered Australia as an Illegal Maritime Arrival and is not an Australian citizen.”
The lowest priority processing should be given [when] the applicant’s sponsor entered Australia as an Illegal Maritime Arrival. - Department of Home Affairs
The Refugee Council of Australia states that people who seek asylum by boat are not breaking the law. “Under the Refugee Convention, countries cannot penalise refugees who do not have valid travel documents,” it says.
The Department of Home Affairs does not comment on individual cases and every request for an exemption “is considered based on individual case circumstances”, its spokesperson said.
“High demand for partner visas, the quality and completeness of applications, applicants’ responsiveness to requests for information, and the complexity involved in assessing genuineness, character, health and security requirements can influence the time taken to finalise each individual case.”
Rohullah's current visa doesn't allow him to sponsor his family. Source: SBS
CEO of the Swan Hill Rural City Council John McLinden says the council is well aware of family separation issues facing Hazara men in the community.
“I think it's a common story. It’s really an impasse and they can't see a way forward to getting their families out. They can't go home; if they do, they won't be able to come back. They really are stuck.”
He says he supports refugees coming to rural communities like Swan Hill, rather than capital cities, and believes the federal government should be listening to the locals who are assisting them and advocating for family reunification.
“Our economy is built on the efforts of generations of migrant input and that's continuing. Where these migrants come from seems to change, often based on the political conflicts … but they have enriched and built this great community that we have here.”
At the weekly meet-up group, co-host Mr Hackett says something desperately needs to change for the men there.
“To not process the ones that are here long-term is, I believe, un-Australian … We're not giving them a fair go.”
Rebekah Holt is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne.
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