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Devil in the detail of asylum seeker directive

  • 13 February 2014

In books and films the enormity of a complex and fraught situation is often conveyed by a detail that is quite tiny in the larger picture. For example, the severity of a famine is evoked by a woman fastidiously picking up and brushing clean a few rice grains that have fallen to the ground. In the detail we recognise the larger reality and the values of those implicated in it.

In the clamour of Australia's treatment of people who come to Australia to seek protection from persecution, with its discordant notes of suffering, humiliation, death, heated rhetoric and managerial complexity, a minor and almost unnoticed Government direction struck such a revelatory chord.

Direction 62 issued by the minister before Christmas affects people who came to Australia by boat, have been found to be refugees and have protection visas. It provides that any applications they may have made to bring family members to Australia must remain at the bottom of the pile. Given the many applications that await scrutiny, the consequence of this direction is that people who came to Australia by boat cannot be reunited with their family in Australia. The money, sometimes in the thousands of dollars, they may have spent in applying to sponsor family members will not be returned to them.

The brevity of the direction belies its enormous effects on the people affected by it. They had set their hearts on being reunited with their families. Their hope sustained them through the long years of detention before they gained protection. Most fled their own countries because they feared for their lives. They had good reason also to fear for the security of their families whom they left behind. Indeed the hope that they could together make a new life in Australia often fuelled their flight. In detention their fear for their families was mixed with guilt at leaving them and with helplessness at being unable to support or help them. When they received protection they directed all their energies to sponsor their families.

To give one example, a young man from Sri Lanka who had to flee for his life from both rebel and government forces, left his wife and two young children behind. One was born after he left. Living in a region with a heavy army presence she lives in fear and in poor living conditions. Her health has also been poor and she needs medical care. While