Top lawyers, migration experts and disability advocates will come together in Adelaide this week to call on the Australian government to rethink its migration health requirement, which they say discriminates against people with disability.
New Zealanders Nicole Forbes-Hood and her two teenage children are legally blind, so she was shocked when her 16-year-old son Cameron was the only one to have his application for permanent residency in Australia rejected after failing the government’s migration health requirement.
For the Immigration Department, the decision came down to the fact Cameron also has autism and an intellectual disability which it said would be too costly for the Australian taxpayer.
“It was extremely devastating and incomprehensible in a lot of ways,” Ms Forbes-Hood told SBS News of the moment she received Cameron’s rejection in 2015. “I was shocked and heartbroken that they could accept one child and not the other.”
The family of four had moved to Brisbane years earlier in 2009 and believed the process to become Australian citizens would be “straight-forward” due to agreements between the two countries and because the children’s grandfather was an Australian citizen.
“We really wanted better opportunities for our family, warmer weather and the Australian lifestyle,” Ms Forbes-Hood, 42, said. “We settled quickly with jobs, built a house and the kids were thriving. We were living the Australian dream.”
But the migration health requirement for Australian visas prevented that.
The health requirement refers to a rule that requires people applying for a visa or permanent residency need to be free from disabilities or illnesses which “would be likely to require health care or community services" and result in more than $49,000 in costs over 10 years or for the duration of their stay when applying for temporary visas.
It means several families and individuals each year are barred from migrating to Australia exclusively on the basis of their disability or chronic health condition, even when there is no indication that government disability or health services will be used.
Ms Forbes-Hood is sharing her family's story as part of a renewed push for a review of the migration health requirement, more than 10 years after a joint parliamentary review found it “unfairly discriminates against those who have a disability”.
The Welcoming Disability campaign, led by disability advocates, lawyers and migration experts, is calling for the government’s 2010 Enabling Australia report to be reexamined and for the recommendations to be immediately implemented.
Formally launching in Adelaide on Thursday, the organisers of the campaign - which is supported by Down Syndrome Australia and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights - say they hope it will shine a fresh light on the “unfair'' and “inequitable” process.
“It’s been 10 years since the Enabling Australia report into the migration treatment of people with disabilities was handed down to the government … but very little has been done,” Jan Gothard, a migration agent with Estrin Saul Migration Lawyers specialising in disability, said ahead of the launch.
“Successive governments have overlooked this and we think it’s about time the government was called to account … because people are still suffering significantly because of the migration health requirements.”
Chief executive of Down Syndrome Australia Ellen Skladzien, who is also backing the campaign, said the health requirement is a “human rights issue”.
“The idea that our government is asking people who meet all the other requirements for a visa not to enter Australia purely on the fact they have a child with Down Syndrome is just inequitable and goes against everything we stand for in terms of the rights of people with disabilities,” she said.
“These laws reinforce the stigma and discrimination that people with disabilities are already facing.”
The migration health requirement has three purposes: to protect the community from public health risks, such as infectious diseases, to prevent Australians from being unable to access in-demand medical services, like transplants, and to guard against significant public health costs.
The Department of Home Affairs maintains that the legislation is not discriminatory because it applies to all visa and permanent residency applicants equally.
A department spokesperson told SBS News all applicants are treated “in an equal and fair manner”.
“Neither the current or previous policy discriminates against applicants who have a disability or illness,” they said, adding that applicants that do not meet the legislated requirements could apply for ministerial intervention.
Dr Gothard points to the fact the rules under the Migration Act are exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act.
“If it's not discriminatory, why does it need to be exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act? It’s either one or the other, you can't have it both ways,” she said.
Cameron was eventually granted Australian citizenship in 2018 after then Immigration Minister Peter Dutton intervened in the family's case.
It followed a lengthy and expensive appeals battle that took almost two years and cost the family more than $20,000.
“It was just exhausting,” Ms Forbes-Hood said.
“I just don’t want to see others in this same situation … Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to society.”