The Brisbane refugee legal service looking beyond October 1

As far as waiting rooms go, it felt familiar: a horseshoe of chairs organised around a carpeted floor strewn with kids toys and books. The phone rings. Centrelink payments have been cut. “I know, I know, I’m sorry, but we’re not the Department of Immigration,” the receptionist responds, running off the required contact details to the concerned caller.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection this is not; nor is it a Centrelink office.

What the Refugee and Immigration Legal Service is, however, is one of the few places in Queensland offering free legal help for people with cases before the DIBP, the Migration Review Tribunal, or the Refugee Review Tribunal.

Like many other specialist refugee and immigration legal centres, between managing caseloads and minuscule budgets, RAILS had their work cut out for them even before Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s surprise deadline announcement.

Last month, asylum seekers were told they would be given until October 1 to lodge an application or face cut-offs from government payments or deportation, though the ministerial bar allowing them to begin lodging these was only lifted late last year.

"If people think they can rip the Australian taxpayer off, if people think that they can con the Australian taxpayer, then I'm sorry, the game's up,” Dutton said, suggesting those roughly 7,500 who had arrived by boat between August 2012 and December 2013 and not lodged an application—the so-called ‘legacy caseload’—were “fake refugees.”

After searching the labyrinthine rooms for one that was free, RAILS’ principal solicitor, Bruce Wells, explained the difficulties facing those both seeking and providing help with the application process.

“It’s not like lifting the bar immediately put them in a place where they could begin their visa application, it put them in a place where they could then go to a service provider to say I need your help and the service provider would put them at the back of the queue where there are already thousands of people waiting to get that service.”

Once the necessary legal help has been found, the application is notoriously arduous, especially for those who may not be so comfortable with English or the legal jargon and thinking that dominates the process.

Khanh Hoang, an associate lecturer at the ANU migration law program, told 4ZZZ that “given the deadline, asylum seekers face an impossible choice. They must either submit an application—without legal assistance—before the deadline or risk destitution and/or deportation.”

“Without legal assistance, applications lodged are likely to be inaccurate and incomplete, meaning that people may incorrectly be refused a visa and sent back to a place where they would face persecution.”

In Queensland, Wells says, there is somewhere between 200 and 250 people who have not yet lodged their visa applications but he is confident they will be able to assist this group by October 1.

“We started our project here at RAILS a couple years ago, so we’ve been working through this process and prioritising people based on their date of arrival in Australia and their invitations to apply for visas.”

“Compared to the thousands in Victoria and NSW we are actually quite well off.”

RAILS is deeply engaged with community and language groups across the state, encouraging them to refer people in need of legal help. But whether through a lack of a communication channel or a distrust in the system, Wells’ concern lies with those they don’t know about.

“Some people are so disillusioned with the process and having been frozen out of the visa application process for so long that they are extremely sceptical and extremely distrusting of government, so rather than engage they choose to protest and say, 'this is so inherently unfair that I’m not going to engage with this process'.”

“This is one of the few ways of exercising agency over their own destiny that they have left to them. I don't think it’s in their best interests but I can understand where they are coming from if they choose to take that path.”

As much as some would love to see Australia withdraw from the UN Refugee Convention—as Pauline Hanson and Corey Bernardi displayed this week—Australia does have an obligation.

“Our view is that Australia has obligations to people who are here in our country and have articulated a fear of returning to their home country and it’s our responsibility to assess those claims and to make a decision about whether protection is owed,” Wells told 4ZZZ. “I don't think that responsibility can be ignored or passed over."

“There has to be a process in place—and a fair and transparent process. People have to understand what the process is and what their role in it is, otherwise, any outcomes that come from it are questionable.”


Image: Wikimedia Commons. View down Boundary St towards West End


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