Family reunion setback for refugees who came by boat

Refugees who arrived by boat will now find it even harder to bring family members to Australia.

An asylum seeker boat intercepted near Ashmore Reef - AAP-1.jpg
(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

Refugees who arrived by boat will now find it even harder to bring family members to Australia under a directive issued by the Immigration Minister.

SBS has obtained a copy of an Immigration Department email notifying registered migration agents that refugees who arrived by boat will be given the lowest processing priority when they apply for family reunions.

The directive applies retrospectively to all permanent visa holders.

This report by Thea Cowie and Shalailah Medhora.

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The news is devastating for refugees like Abdul Karim Hekmat who is still hoping to save his extended family in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"Why do you have to punish those people who are accepted as refugees and they live in the community? I still got family members to bring and obviously this is making it very harder to bring family members. I think it really closes doors to a lot of us who thought that this would be another way that we could have bring family members. And when I say closes it's really it's putting family members at risk back home."

Mr Hekmat came to Australia by boat in 2001 and gained a permanent protection visa in 2004.

He says it took another five long and stressful years for him to bring his mother, brother and two sisters to Australia through the humanitarian program.

"I was really under a lot of pressure when I was trying to get my family here and I couldn't manage it and it was slow. I was calling them every day and I was really worried about their safety, about their future. And my sisters obviously with the Taliban were not able to go to school and get education and I was really under pressure."

Under the changes to family stream visa applications, boat arrivals will still be able to sponsor family members to Australia, but their applicaions will be given the lowest processing priority.

According to the directive, processing could take a number of years.

It says the changes will apply to all current and future family stream visa applications.

Since 2012 changes to family reunion policy, many refugees have applied for their families to come to Australia under the family stream visa, rather than the Special Humanitarian Program.

Due to a shortage of humanitarian places, the number of family stream places specifically for humanitarian entrants was boosted by four-thousand.

The Australian government told refugees applying for family stream places would be a quicker way to reunite their family.

Migration agent and refugee advocate Marion Le says now those people will be sent to the back of the queue.

"It doesn't matter if that application has been in for ten years and is almost finalised, it will have no further action until every other case all over the world has been actioned. And I'd say that means that anyone who came by boat whose case has not already been decided has no hope at all of having reunion with their family and their wives and their children for many many years to come, if at all."

Ms Le says as many as 30,000 refugees may be affected, some who have spent up to 20-thousand dollars lodging their applications and obtaining DNA tests, and health and security checks.

The Immigration Minister's directive says if sponsors decide to withdraw their applications that money will not be refunded.

Kevin Lane is the chief operating officer of the Migration Institute of Australia.

He says he'll be calling on the Immigration Minister to review the decision.

"As the Migration Institute of Australia representing migration agents we will certainly be making representations about this to the Minister. Especially in regards to the retrospectivity of this direction. I've had lots of calls from members who are very concerned about this for their clients who have already lodged applications."

The directive applies to all permanent visa holders until they obtain Australian citizenship.

Elaine Pearson from Human Rights Watch says the new policy may violate international human rights law.

"Quite clearly under the Convention of the Rights of the Child there is a priority for family reunification. That applications are dealt with in a humane, positive and expeditious manner. I also think it's somewhat problematic in terms of Article 31 of the Refugee Convention because under that provision of the Refugee Convention people should not be penalised on their mode of arrival, whether they come by boat or whether they come by plane."

And Geoff McPherson from Canberra Refugee Support says it's a further blow to some of Australia's most vulnerable people.

"Telling people that we agree that they're a refugee but we don't agree that they can have their family reunion application processed for years or indefinitely is obviously going to add to the wait that we already see where people suffer mental illness and distress. Why we keep on ratchetting up that level of distress is something that only our national leaders can explain."

In a statement to SBS, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison says the change is consistent with the Coalition's long-held position that people he terms "Illegal Maritime Arrivals" should not have their claims prioritised over people who come to Australian legitimately.

He says the policy will ensure the limited number of family reunion places will not be take by boat arrivals at the expense of others.



5 min read
Published 8 January 2014 at 6:08pm