Refugee lawyers have condemned Immigration Minister Peter Dutton's tough asylum seeker 'protection deadline' saying he knew some people wouldn’t be able to meet it.
On Thursday Peter Dutton revealed 71 of up to 7500 asylum seekers had failed to meet the government's deadline for their protection applications to be lodged.
Part of the process requires asylum seekers to submit a Form 866 application for a protection visa – a document that is over 30 pages long and requires in-depth responses on family and travel history.
In May, Mr Dutton imposed an October 1 deadline for 7500 asylum seekers to “lodge it or leave”, requiring them to make a protection claim, or face deportation or cuts to welfare support.
The government’s stance is that those who missed the deadline are people who were no longer seeking asylum or Australia’s protection.
Speaking with 2GB’s Ray Hadley, Mr Dutton said the 7429 people who had met the deadline would now have their claims processed by the Department of Immigration.
He said those found not to be a genuine refugee after their assessment would be deported from Australia.
He confirmed that 71 people who had not met the deadline had already been cut off from receiving government welfare benefits.
“I said enough is enough, provide or benefits are cut off,” he said.
“They’re on welfare benefits costing tax payers quarter of a billion dollars a year and they’re refusing to provide any information.
“They are out in the community and we’ve been very clear about that.”
But Principal Lawyer for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Noosheen Mogadam felt the people who missed Dutton’s deadline could have legitimate reasons for doing so.
The ASRC plan to challenge the decision to exclude the 71 people who missed the deadline from seeking asylum.
“These are mothers, fathers, and young children. Many were scared to come forward to lodge protection claims, given Australia's ever changing refugee policies and laws and the uncertainty in process,” she said in a statement to SBS.
In a statement the ASRC accused Dutton of enforcing a wait for up to 1600 days for people seeking asylum in Australia then suddenly changing it to a four-month deadline.
The ASRC claim Dutton knew some asylum seekers would be unable to meet the deadline and would be excluded from the application process.
ASRC CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis said the October 1 deadline placed incredible pressure and demand on refugee charities, with some working up to 90 hours a week to help asylum seekers submitting their applications.
"We have had people turn up daily in tears, scared they are going to miss the deadline and be sent back to harm’s way," Mr Karapanagiotidis said.
"What if one of them is a single mother from Myanmar who couldn’t apply because she couldn’t leave her kids to come to a legal appointment, how can you have blanket decision on the 71 people without considering each case," Mr Karapanagiotidis said.
"Government should be required to review and facilitate legal assistance for the 71 so their claims are assessed."
Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS) principal solicitor Sarah Dale echoed this.
She agreed that there could be a number of reasons why an asylum seeker may have missed the deadline – such as homelessness, mental illness, financial distress.
“These people are human, mums and dads, individuals who have a right to come to Australia to seek our protection and they’ve gone through a rigorous process to be owed that.”
Ms Dale said she empathized with those who struggled to fill in the required Form 866.
“The issue is we have many people that haven’t been educated and they don’t have any legal knowledge. It is incredibly difficult to answer some of the questions,” she said.
“For a non-English [speaking] person who hasn’t been educated it would be particularly difficult.”
Ms Dale said RACS has received thousands of requests for assistance with Form 866 since 2012.
“[The] majority sat on a 12 month waiting list to get our help, that’s how desperate people were to get this right. It’s a one shot thing.”
Ms Dale said RACS had yet to be approached by anyone who had failed to meet the deadline, but the service had previously assisted more than 2000 people in NSW alone in lodging their applications.
She said many asylum seekers needed help in understanding particular questions and drafting their statements.
She expected those who were now stripped of government support would plunge into financial distress and need to seek help from the community.
“I think it will take some time before those 71 become apparent to us,” she said.
“We can’t comment on who they are or what their situation is. The large majority of this cohort is exceptionally vulnerable. There are a large amount of mental health issues in this community and there is a significant amount of distress and anxiety felt.
“We’re seeing people who are struggling financially, [the assistance] is certainly less than what an Australian citizen is afforded.
Ms Dale also suspected a vast majority of 27000 asylum seekers Australia-wide who had lodged their applications were seeking some sort of government assistance.
“The majority of the people we work with are struggling, they have to live in share houses and share rooms and access food banks in order to survive,” she said.
“It’s incredibly disheartening to hear a lot of these stories ... These people have to flee violence and then they have to go through this process. I can’t comprehend the strength required to do that.”
She hoped that those who did meet the deadline were afforded a “fair and efficient” processing of refugee status.