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Labor stops short on migration and disability reform

  • 05 December 2012

In April 2001, a Pakistani man granted refugee status set himself on fire outside of the Australian Parliament House. His self-immolation was presumably a protest for prolonged delays and frustrations surrounding reunification for his family spanning five years.

Visas for his wife and three daughters were rejected because his second daughter had cerebral palsy, deemed to impose significant costs on taxpayers. The man died within two months due to his burns and organ failure.

The Commonwealth Ombudsman was critical of the Immigration Department's treatment of the man. But despite a 2003 coronial inquest, there was scant evidence on the immediate precursors to the tragedy, and in 2005, the ACT Coroner cleared officials of blame.

In 2008 disability migration was examined more closely, after media reported public disquiet surrounding the migration case of Dr Bernhard Moeller. The Horsham physician's application for permanent residency in Australia was rejected because one of his children has Down's Syndrome.

Then Minister for Immigration, Chris Evans intervened and the regional medico and his family were permitted to stay. But the issue highlighted the seemingly unreasonable health requirements in Australia's migration laws.

Within months, the Immigration Minister and the then Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities, Bill Shorten, asked the Joint Standing Committee on Migration to inquire into the health requirement in the Migration Act. An inquiry report was all but lost in the media storm surrounding the Labor leadership change of June 2010.

The report, Enabling Australia, offered an impressive analysis and a persuasive argument for change. The committee sifted through over 100 submissions and many stories of potential migrants who were forced to handle tricky migration scenarios at the same time as managing disability or its diagnosis in their children.

Politicians of various ideologies worked together to produce a suite of recommendations that were specific, achievable and compassionate. The committee's recommendations were unanimous. During the 2010 election campaign, numbers of refugee advocates, concerned Australians and potential eventual citizens hoped the recommendations would be supported and implemented by any prospective government.

A month ago, the Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen answered some of those hopes when he announced 'a fairer approach to migration for people with disability'. This time Superstorm Sandy, the US election, and discussion surrounding the excision of Australia's mainland from its migration zone, overshadowed the news.

The fact that the changes were announced concomitantly could be interpreted as a strategic political tactic. The bizarre and populist excision policy draws attention from the more humane