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Migration reform good news at last

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Move brings humanity to our treatment of asylum seekers'Migration reform' is commonly the wording used for any changes in the Immigration portfolio, but it is not often that it has positive connotations when dealing with refugees and asylum seekers. However in the last 18 months, four changes made by Minister Evans do have positive benefits.

The abolition of the 'Temporary Protection Visa' (TPV) and the 'Pacific Solution' last year was welcome not only by advocates but by the refugees living in the limbo that the TPV created. Most should now have their permanent visa, but many waited years for this.

Permanent residence means they can at last sponsor their immediate family such as a spouse and dependent children. It also means they can visit family in a third country and know they will be able to return to Australia.

Both of these scenarios were prevevented under the TPV, which was incredibly punitive. The trauma of initial family separation is bad enough without the added trauma of knowing it will continue for years. This policy influenced many spouses and children to travel to Australia by boat rather than wait years in unsafe conditions.

All successful refugees are now granted permanent residence. This helps them to establish their lives in their new country, without constantly worrying about what is happening to their family overseas.

The second major reform was in detention practice. Now the focus is on making detention as brief as possible, with access to community housing. The Department of Immigration and Citizenship tries to reduce the numbers of people going into detention and see if there are ways these people can stay in the community on a bridging visa. This is a marked change in approach from the former government, whose focus was the reverse.

A related reform is the abolition of detention debts. These were introduced in 1992 by a previous Labor government. The debt was a daily rate (usually more than $120) charged to a detainee which they had to repay on being granted a visa unless it was waived.

In reality, very little money was ever collected — about three per cent, according to DIAC — as those granted protection had the fee waived, and others who were returned to their home country were unlikely to ever pay the amount unless they wanted to come back to Australia.

The debt was only enforced against a small number of former detainees. The economics of outstanding debtors meant it would cost more to administer this flawed scheme than would ever be recovered. Now the abolition Bill is in Parliament and will probably pass the Senate with the support of the Greens and Independents.

A fourth reform was the introduction of a new Ministerial Direction (number 41) to set out the factors to be considered in character cases. The lessons of Dr Haneef's case have been implemented as well as the criticisms in the Ombudsman's report about cancellation of visas for long term residents of Australia.

Now, the fact that someone came to Australia as a minor and has spent their formative years or a major part of their life here, will be a major factor to consider before their visa is cancelled.

The old practice meant that people with criminal convictions who had lived most of their life in Australia could be removed to a country where they had never really lived, or had not been for many tears. This harsh practice is less likely under the new Direction.

The Government has promised reform of permission to work on bridging visas, and to look at implementing 'complementary protection', which is about finding a domestic way to protect people at risk of a serious human rights problem, such as statelessness or torture, that cannot be linked to the refugee criteria.

These reforms are welcome and long overdue. While the systems were set up or supported by Labor, they are now prepared to change their old policies.

It is disappointing that only a few Coalition MPs have stood up for reform. The Opposition claims we should punish asylum seekers, because their actions help people smugglers. This ethically flawed principle has finally gone.

The treatment of asylum seekers and others in the Immigration portfolio will always demand a balance between the sometimes competing interests of sovereignty and human rights. These new policies emphasise the importance of human dignity and human rights in a policy area that was previously focused on punishment.

Kerry MurphyKerry Murphy is a partner with the specialist immigration law firm D'Ambra Murphy Lawyers. He is a student of Arabic, former Jesuit Refugee Service coordinator, teaches at ANU and is one of Australia's top immigration lawyers recognised by last year's Australian Financial Review Best Lawyers survey. 

Topic tags: immigration, kerry murphy, migration reform, asylum seekers, refugees, temporary protection visas, tpv



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Existing comments

It's about time but it would be nice if the ALP just had the guts to stand and say "it is a legal right to come and seek protection in Australia and we will not punish people who do" and that "there is no people smuggling and we will not continue to punish innocent, destitute Indonesian fishermen for saving the lives of people who will become citizens of Australia."

Who invented all this tripe about smugglers anyway? Our own courts say "this is clearly not people smuggling" so what are we talking about in reality?

Transport, something that is required because people cannot transmogrify and turn up in another place.

Marilyn | 01 July 2009  

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