The mental health impacts of Australia’s immigration system on visa applicants are being brought to light in a new documentary series. Those supporting people applying for permanent residency say changes need to be made to better support migrants whose lives are at risk.
Content warning: This article contains reference to self-harm and suicide.
"Unfortunately … they’ve decided to refuse the visa.”
Satinder got the devastating news from her immigration lawyer last year as she sat at the dining table in her Melbourne home.
"They don’t believe that there’s a genuine relationship,” the lawyer explains over the phone.
Satinder puts her face in her hands and begins to sob, as a documentary film crew records. Her dog, Shiny, whimpers in the background.
“I know now what I want to do,” she says.
It’s at this moment that Satinder goes to the bathroom and closes the door. If anything happens to her, she says, the Australian Department of Home Affairs should be held responsible. It later becomes clear she has taken an overdose.
The dramatic scene went to air on Wednesday night as part of the new SBS documentary series, Who Gets To Stay In Australia?, which follows the lives of 13 people and their families who are applying for permanent residency.
“That was such a difficult time for me,” she tells SBS News, reflecting on the moment from last year.
“I was so stressed at the time I found out the news, it felt like my head was going to burst.”
Satinder and Sumit, both in their 30s and from India, met as students in Melbourne in 2007.
“We were both at the door, waiting for class to start. I was wearing a traditional Indian dress and he said: ‘You look stunning’," Satinder says.
“It was love at first sight for me,” Sumit says. “She was genuine, softly spoken ... my mind was made up.”
But Satinder would make Sumit wait through six years of friendship before they got together in 2013.
Satinder, who works in the gaming industry, became an Australian citizen in 2015. The couple got married the same year, but sponsoring her husband for permanent residency would prove the most challenging chapter of her life.
As Sumit had previously overstayed his student visa, they knew their case would be a “red flag” with the Department of Home Affairs. He returned to India so they could apply for a 309/100 offshore partner visa, which they believed was the right thing to do.
But it would mean more than three years of living apart and investigation - which included Australian government representatives being sent to Sumit’s parents’ home in India and interviewing their neighbours - before he would be rejected.
“It’s just pretty earth-shattering,” their immigration lawyer Yunn Chen, who made the difficult phone call to Satinder, says. “Immigration law in Australia is complex and there's a lot of subjectiveness to it. When she received the result, it's just a build-up of years of trying to prove yourself and prove the relationship.”
“Mental health isn't just a quick decline. It chips away at you and then when you've got a decision like that after three years of hoping and waiting, that can just break you.”
Muradiye Selvi is a consultant psychologist working in Melbourne’s multicultural suburb of Coburg. She says Satinder’s case isn’t an isolated one. Many of her patients are temporary visa holders who are waiting for a decision from the Department of Home Affairs, with some of those applying for a partner visa.
“These are probably some of the most difficult ones,” she says. “They're waiting for their residency to be able to continue the life that they had planned here in this country, so they’re living in this state of protracted uncertainty."
“The sense of insecurity, the prolonged waiting and the inability to set up a future for yourself - along with the fear of removal from the host country - these cause migrants on temporary visas detrimental mental health issues.”
Some of the diagnoses Ms Selvi sees include post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety disorders, psychosomatic disorders and adjustment disorder.
“Major depressive disorder is also one that we have to work with intensely. Unfortunately, one of the major symptoms is suicide ideation. The mindset is ‘I might as well die rather than go back’. It's an utter sense of despair,” she says.
“We do everything that we possibly can … but we have lost one gentleman to suicide when he got a visa rejection.”
Cultural shame, too, can also play a part, she says.
“In some cultures, setting yourself up in a new country, you leave behind your kinship and you make promises about your new life. The idea that you may fail is one of the most difficult things to accept.
“Sometimes, when I'm working with people I say, ‘is it easier for you to go back and start all over again?’ and they look at me with absolute horror and say ‘I cannot, I would disrespect my family who put so much effort into us and have supported us financially … this has to work’."
“My manager at work was the only person I was talking to,” Satinder says of her experience. “I didn’t talk to my family members about how I was feeling as I felt like they would get more stressed out having to hear about my issues when I’m so far away. My mum had her own responsibilities to deal with.”
She says she made an irrational decision in the emotion of the moment and has since sought professional help for her mental health. She encourages others to do the same.
Ms Chen is calling for more compassion in the visa system in order to reduce mental health impacts.
“There are so many people with their own baggage and traumas, and if the government applies a blanket rule and sees all these applicants as just a number, and not in a genuine relationship until proven otherwise, that could cause a lot of suffering,” she says.
“Australia is built on migrants, so to put up the drawbridge and make it harder and harder for people wanting the same thing is, in my view, really unjust.”
Ms Selvi, whose clinic provides in-language and culturally-specific support, says there also needs to be more services to support temporary visa holders who often don’t qualify for Medicare or government support.
“I become the social worker, the welfare work and the interpreter,” she says.
She also says more communication needs to be provided to applicants in the visa queue.
“When I ask patients ‘how is your visa application going?’ they look at me blankly and say ‘I have no idea’. Giving people knowledge and information about their circumstances is actually power, and it may, in fact, alleviate some of their anxieties.”
Satinder agrees: “Waiting for four years to be told no was devastating – if you’re going to reject someone, say no in the first year. I also think they could make it simple; if someone has to move offshore, wait times should be limited to one year. There are many ways they could find out a relationship is fake without making people live apart for so long.”
A survey of refugees in Australia published in the European Journal of Psychotraumatology last year found those with insecure visa status showed greater depressive symptoms and suicidal intent than those with secure visa status.
But migration sociologist Shanthi Robertson says there is no hard evidence about the total number of migrants who are impacted by Australia’s immigration system and more research needs to be done.
As an associate professor at Western Sydney University, her work looks at how being in the immigration system affects people's everyday lives and the decisions they make.
“In terms of how the visa system is set up in Australia, it is one of the most difficult skilled migration systems in the world. Often people don't realise it's probably one of the hardest places to migrate to,” she says.
More than 25,000 applications for permanent residency are refused each year.
“We've seen two really critical trends over the last 15 to 20 years; one is how much more expensive it's getting - not just for the visa fees, but also all the additional costs for health testing, language testing, private health insurance, that just keep going up and up. The second thing that's really increased is the waiting times - for a lot of these visas they are basically indefinite.”
Associate Professor Robertson points to the fact that more people now apply for permanent residency once they are already onshore and have established their lives in Australia.
“It's often referred to as a ‘try before you buy’ migration system, meaning migrants can try out living and working in Australia before the commitment of permanent residency - but that also acts as a testing period [for the Department of Home Affairs] to make sure that they are contributing, that they are employable, and they meet the criteria for permanent migration.
“One of the advantages for the government in this is absolutely a financial one because they do make quite a bit of money out of all of these people trying to get visas in Australia.”
SBS News sent questions to the Department of Home Affairs and the Department of Health about whether they were aware of the mental health impacts Australia's immigration system is having on some visa applicants and what they were doing to counter it.
The Department of Health did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said in a statement that visa applications “are generally processed in the order in which they are received … Processing times vary according to individual circumstances and the complexity of the application, for example in relation to assessments of identity, health, character, and national security.”
“In 2018-19, 39,918 partner and prospective marriage visas were delivered through the migration program,” they said.
“The department engages with applicants through each stage of the process [and] processing times for all visas can be found on the department’s website. These are updated monthly.”
Partner visas currently cost $7,715 with 90 per cent of offshore applications processed within 18 months and 90 per cent of onshore applications processed within 25 months.
After an appeal, Satinder and Sumit received the good news in February that Sumit’s visa refusal had been overturned and their relationship was accepted as genuine.
“I had a missed call on my phone from Yunn,” Satinder says. “I couldn’t believe it when she said ‘congratulations’, I was crying so much.”
Amid the coronavirus travel ban, Sumit managed to fly to Australia last month and after quarantining for 14 days reunited with Satinder on Wednesday, the same day the documentary episode in which they feature went to air.
After years of keeping their marriage going with video calls and messages, Satinder says they’ll be spending their first day back together on a long drive and will take Shiny to the beach.
“I’m really looking forward to starting a family with Satinder,” Sumit says.
“She suffered a lot and all I want is for her to be happy. I now want to work hard to make sure she has everything she needs.”
Who Gets To Stay In Australia airs on Wednesdays at 8.30pm on SBS. Satinder and Sumit’s story can be viewed at SBS On Demand
For information in your language about settlement in Australia, visit sbs.com.au/settlementguide
Readers seeking mental health support can contact Lifeline crisis support on 13 11 14, Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467 and Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 (for young people aged 5 to 25). More information is available at Beyond Blue.org.au and lifeline.org.au.