Social work values and refugee policy


“Social work values and refugee policy”

Speech delivered at the AASW ACT Annual Dinner, Canberra, 28 May 2013

Lucy Fiske, Curtin University Centre for Human Rights Education.



Good evening everyone and thank you for inviting me to speak with you tonight about a matter dear to my heart.

I would like to recognise the Ngunnawal people, pay my respects to their elders past and present and acknowledge their ongoing guardianship of the land upon which we meet.

It is great to be in a room full of social workers, with the shared values and solidarity it brings.

The key element that drew me to social work as opposed to either psychology or politics is its focus on the person in the environment – it is social work’s insistence on a holistic approach that draws together personal life stories with both structural and policy environments that I think is social work’s greatest strength.

We don’t seek the key to understanding people’s problems entirely within the individual. Nor do we approach policy and matters of nation in a detached, abstract way. Social workers keep actual human beings in the forefront of our minds when looking at policy matters.

For me, the defining feature of social work is its capacity to constantly link the personal and the political and our commitment to human rights and social justice for all.

I first started working with asylum seekers and refugees in the UK in the mid 1990s and have worked in this field continuously since then, in London, Melbourne, Perth and now, Sydney.

It is both a rewarding and a difficult area to work in, and unfortunately, has become progressively more challenging over that time.

Successive governments, not only in Australia, but in every OECD nation, have increasingly seen asylum seeking not as an opportunity to make a modest contribution to the alleviation of global human suffering and a opportunity to enrich the nation through diversity and the structural affirmation of values we hold dear – values such as compassion, justice and fairness, but as a problem, a threat to national security and border integrity and as something that must be stopped – seemingly at all costs.

National political discourse around asylum seeking has become progressively more securitised and the human stories which drive refugee movement are drowned out by fear based narratives of organised crime, terrorism and threat.

The policy framework has become more punitive and whether one measures success against the oft repeated mantra of stopping the boats, or against social justice narratives of alleviating suffering – has abjectly failed.

Policies aimed at deterrence have not deterred people from getting on boats. Mandatory detention, introduced in 1992 has not stopped the boats, nor did Temporary Protection Visas and nor has the latest incarnation of the Pacific Solution and the principle of ‘No Advantage’.

I think most social workers, whatever field we work in, have particular clients who stick in our minds, people whose stories touch us in some way and who exemplify either the successes or problems in politics and policy. For me that person is a man that I worked with in Perth from 1999.

Ali is a Hazara man from Afghanistan. I met him when he was released from detention on a temporary protection visa (TPV). He was married with 3 children aged between 6 and 12 years old. I was working at ASeTTS a torture and trauma rehabilitation centre and one of the few federally funded services which TPV holders were able to access. Ali first came to see me to ask where he could learn English. He returned a number of times with small questions about practical issues – changing his internet service provider, setting up direct debit for his electricity bills and the like. Gradually he grew to trust me and began to offer up small details of his story – that he wasn’t sleeping at night as he was so worried about his family and that the little sleep he did get was punctuated by nightmares of events he’d survived and events he feared.

One day Ali came to my office trembling and collapsed in sobs. Through an interpreter he explained that he had received a phone call the night before from his then 7 year old son telling him that Mum was dead and the children needed Ali to come and get them.

Ali had left his wife and three children in their village in the mountainous Harzarjat in central Afghanistan under the care of his brothers. Ali and his family had been particularly targeted by the local warlord, he never understood why. They had paid bribes to escape a number of attacks, but as poor people, soon ran out of anything of value to offer. I won’t go into detail about what happened when they ran out of offerings, but there were a series of incidents which precipitated his leaving. Ali did not want to leave his family, but his brothers convinced him he must. It was a 30 day walk to Pakistan, I should really say 30 night walk as Ali explained it was too dangerous to travel during daylight. There was little chance that he and his wife with three children travelling together could make the journey to Pakistan. His brothers advised that he should go alone and then send for his family, they would care for his wife and kids.

There were escalating attacks on his family and on his wife in particular, he is not sure, but he believes she was raped with grievous violence. The local warlord took one of the family’s sheep and slaughtered it before them in a ritual manner, saying they would be back the following day to slaughter his son in the same way. Ali’s brothers decided that regardless of the dangers of flight, the family must flee. Ali’s wife died somewhere along the way. His three children, led by his then 13 year old daughter made it to Tajikistan and from there to Iran.

His three children were in Iran when he received that phone call. Ali was understandably distraught. His TPV meant he could not sponsor his children to join him in Australia and if he left Australia to go and see them, he would not be able to return. He could not go to Iran anyway – with no travel documents he had no chance of getting a visa.

I called a good friend of mine, a refugee lawyer, and together we took a detailed statement from Ali. We called the UNHCR in Iran and organised for the children to register and be assessed for urgent resettlement. We presented an extensive application to the Minister for Immigration asking that the 36 month wait for Ali to be assessed again as a refugee and be considered for permanent residency which would enable him to sponsor his children and even to go and stay with them in Iran while their cases were processed, to be lifted.

The Minister refused. We FOI’d Ali’s file to try to understand the basis of the refusal and were dismayed to learn that the Immigration Department estimated there were 4000 TPV holders in similar circumstances around the country and that to lift the bar for one would be unfair, the alternative – to lift the bar for all – would undermine the integrity and intent of the TPV policy.

Ali spent the next several years living frugally and sending money to another Hazara family in Iran to care for his children. He spoke to them by telephone each week and came to dread those phone calls. His children simply could not understand why their father had abandoned them and his reassurances that he loved them and was doing all he could felt increasingly hollow.

Ali’s mental health, which was poor when I first met him, deteriorated severely. He had bouts of suicidal thoughts and plans and came dangerously close to ending his life. For several years he barely slept, was constantly ridden with anxiety, tormented by guilt and nightmares. There was nothing I could do to help him recover from his ordeal because his ordeal was not over. My job was to keep him alive.

At the end of his TPV Ali was again found to be a refugee and was granted permanent residency. He was then able to sponsor his children and about 2 years after that they joined him in Australia.

Ali’s story for me exemplified the unnecessary cruelty of the TPV policy and of policies which elevate deterrence above human lives. These policies were justified in part, by appeals to ‘fairness’ – that people getting on boats are unfairly jumping the queue and disadvantaging those who wait.

We no longer have TPVs, but Australia has now introduced a policy platform that will have the same effect, or perhaps worse.

Federal policy for responding to asylum seekers who arrive by boat is currently shaped by the ‘no advantage principle’ – that asylum seekers arriving by boat should not gain an unfair advantage over other refugees who wait in other countries.

Key elements of the policy framework are that asylum seekers arriving by boat will not have their claims processed sooner than they would be processed ‘elsewhere’, how long that timeframe may be has not been established. The previous Minister for Immigration has indicated that five years would not be an unreasonable expectation. However, there are also rumblings that some form of processing may begin soon, and processing has begun on Nauru as the detention centre there became unmanageable. But asylum seekers who arrived after August 12 last year have no indication of when their refugee claims might be processed. During this time, asylum seekers will either be transferred to Manus Island or Nauru and held in detention there, or they will be released into the community in Australia on a bridging visa with limited rights.

There is much about this policy platform that is problematic from a social work perspective.

Firstly, the idea of ‘no advantage’ assumes that there is an orderly and fair process for allocating resettlement places to refugees and that those who get on boats are disrupting this process and seeking an unfair advantage over others who wait in camps and border towns. The reality is that there is no queue and that refugees are not assured of resettlement if they wait. Less than one percent of refugees are resettled each year. A larger number are assisted to return to their homes and a larger number again simply remain in camps and border towns. Date of displacement is, to the best of my knowledge, not a factor in resettlement.

Resettlement decisions are based on a mix of refugee vulnerability in the place of first asylum, receiving country priorities and advice from the UNHCR. There are approximately 11.3 million refugees and asylum seekers in the world – few of them will be individually interviewed to determine their particular circumstances and even if all were interviewed, it is simply not possible to accurately and objectively rank need or vulnerability.

Although UNHCR nominates refugees for resettlement, it is receiving countries which make the final determination. Countries state which are their priority populations for resettlement, state interests come in to play significantly here. Australia for example, excludes people with disabilities or with serious medical conditions which are determined to be a cost to the nation. All receiving countries have a ‘prospect of settlement’ test – how quickly is the person likely to find work and achieve independence, what skills do they have and what are the gaps in the labour market. Tests such as these strongly advantage refugees with higher education, lower levels of trauma, good health, family connections in Australia and so on. Not quite the voiceless vulnerable women held up in contrast to the asylum seekers arriving by boat and presented as the victim of a visa ‘stolen’ by a young male asylum seeker.

The largest refugee population is, and has been for the last 30 years, Afghan. There are approximately 3 million Afghan refugees, most of them (around 96%) are in Iran and Pakistan. In 2011 the largest population to receive resettlement were refugees from Bhutan, followed by Burma, Iraq and Somalia.

Of the 98,000 refugee visas issued by all refugee resettlement countries in 2010, 540 went to Afghan refugees in Iran. The figures in 2011 were slightly better, 1350 visas were granted to Afghans in Iran. There is no refugee resettlement out of Pakistan except by family reunion.

It is little surprise that Afghans are one of the main nationalities seeking asylum in Australia and have been for the last 15 years. Afghans in Pakistan and Iran have no real prospect of accessing resettlement through the ‘proper’ processes, regardless of their individual need. A family member securing asylum in Australia and then sponsoring their family to join them is their only real chance of resettlement.

Life for Afghans in Pakistan is precarious at best. In addition to the limitations and difficulties of a life without lawful status, there are regular and increasing attacks on Afghans in Quetta and Peshawar, the main border towns where Afghan refugees live. Last month 10 people were killed in a suicide bomb attack in Peshawar. In January 120 were killed in Quetta in a bomb attack on a pool hall frequented by Hazaras. Later that month, also in Quetta, a further 90 were killed in a bomb blast in a market – most of the deaths were Hazara women buying groceries. The Pakistan government has announced its intention to push Afghan refugees back across the border. The UNHCR has no resettlement program out of Pakistan – voluntary return is the only policy framework. Given these circumstances, it is unsurprising that Afghans who are able, seek asylum in Europe and Australia.

So to return to the no advantage principle – if the processing time is to be brought into line with applications processed in Pakistan or Iran, refugees could expect to wait several times their lifespans before being resettled. But I suspect the undefined ‘elsewhere’ does not mean globally, it is more likely to refer to South East Asia.

Estimating numbers and wait times regionally is no easier. There are around 95,000 refugees in Malaysia, 130,000 in Thailand and between 5 and 15 thousand in Indonesia. There are 5,000 refugees registered with the UNHCR in Indonesia, but problems with the system there mean that many more do not register, but instead remain temporarily while waiting to take a boat to Australia. A colleague and I visited Indonesia last year and will be returning later this year. While we were there we met with senior representatives of the UNHCR and IOM, several NGOs, social workers, academics, activists and refugees in a community housing project.

At the end of our trip, my colleague suggested that we nominate people smugglers for a human rights award as they appeared to be the only ones facilitating refugee resettlement from there.

Historically Australia offers a very low number of visas for refugees in Indonesia – around 50 each year. Last year the Australian government increased this to 500 as part of the August 2012 changes – to make refuge more accessible prior to getting on a boat. Most of the 32 refugees we met in Indonesia last year are now in Australia as part of this increase in quota. This is good news indeed, but the process of reaching that point is problematic.

The UNHCR representative we met was highly ambivalent about the increased quota. He was concerned that his office did not have the staff to assess refugee claims at the rate necessary to meet the quota (there was a 12 month backlog at the time we met with him), but he was also concerned that if refugees were resettled out of Indonesia at any significant rate it would act as a ‘pull factor’ into Indonesia for the 95,000 refugees in Malaysia. He explained that the Indonesian government did not want more refugees entering Indonesia and was concerned that the UNHCR needed to also consider Indonesia’s national interests in conducting its operations there.

Most refugees are referred to the UNHCR by Indonesian authorities – either by a refugee presenting him or herself to the immigration office or by being intercepted when on the move. Indonesia detains all asylum seekers until they are found by the UNHCR to be refugees and are offered a place in a community housing and support program through IOM. All the men we met had spent between 6 and 18 months in an Indonesian detention centre. All had been taken into detention when intercepted on a boat headed for Australia or on a bus en-route to a boat departure point. When asked why they didn’t present themselves directly to Indonesian authorities or the UNHCR some replied that they had tried to do so. When they approached the UNHCR directly they were told their case would be registered in 3 to 6 months and that they could then join the ‘queue’ for refugee status determination. When they approached the Indonesian immigration department, they were asked for bribes varying between 500 and 1000 USD in order to be detained and referred to the UNHCR. Many decide that money would be better spent on a smuggler – if you make it to Australia and are found to be a refugee you will be granted asylum, if you are intercepted you end up in Indonesian detention with a referral to the UNHCR for an assessment of your refugee claims.

Most asylum seekers do not register with authorities in Indonesia but rather, transit through the country en route to Australia. Transiting can be anywhere from a week through to months or even years. During this time, unregistered asylum seekers live a life in the shadows – they do not have any lawful rights and risk arrest and detention at anytime.

Bogor and Cisarua (about 2 hours commuter train ride from Jakarta) are major staging posts for asylum seekers prior to boarding a boat to Australia. When we were there in October last year, we met several activists and NGO staff who were travelling to Bogor to protect asylum seekers against a threatened attack by a group in Indonesia with a history of violent attacks. The group had demanded that the Indonesian government move all asylum seekers out of the area within 30 days or they would go house by house and solve the problem themselves. At the time there were an estimated 4,000 asylum seekers in the area, about 200 of them were mandated refugees with UNHCR cards. The UNHCR however, did not propose them for resettlement, but for internal relocation. Local activists advised us that this was unlikely to be a satisfactory outcome as the group is a national organisation.

The date for the expulsion was that weekend and Indonesian activists, NGO staff and community groups went to Bogor, signed up to a telephone tree and stood ready to respond quickly should any of the asylum seekers be attacked. The asylum seekers were advised to stay indoors and had an emergency telephone number to call should any attackers arrive. Fortunately, the attack did not eventuate. Some group members encircled the Church World Service building and chanted slogans, but nothing more than this happened.

Attacks on refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia are rare. The views we encountered there were generally that there is a very low level of awareness about asylum seekers, a small section of society strongly opposed to asylum seekers and a small section of society who are supportive. The main issue facing asylum seekers in Indonesia is that they do not have any legal rights, nor any pathway to secure legal rights there. Without these rights they are vulnerable to exploitative work, lack of access to health or education and an existence that cannot rise above physical survival. Savitri Taylor, a legal academic in Melbourne who conducted a major research project into the lives of asylum seekers in Indonesia, wrote in The Conversation last year:

Others start thinking that attempting to reach Australia by boat is the least horrible option available to them. It is very easy to understand why. From their perspective, all they are risking is their bodies, not their lives. Their lives have already been lost. Savitri Taylor, The Conversation, 20 July 2012.

Australian politicians from both major parties have continued a public discourse which shapes asylum seekers arriving here by boat as ‘queue jumpers’, who are not content to wait patiently for the proper process to work. The current government does not use the language of ‘queue jumper’, but the ‘no advantage principle’ rests upon the same logic - by seeking asylum such people are stealing visas from others more vulnerable and more decent who are doing the right thing and waiting for their turn in the refugee process.

In reality, the formal global refugee regime does not serve the needs of certain communities at all or not well enough. Unsurprisingly, it is these communities which most commonly seek asylum. In the Australian context, this means Afghans and Sri Lankans (there isn’t enough time to talk about Sri Lankans this evening).

To delay processing people’s claims on the basis of ‘fairness’ may have populist appeal, but it is not supported by facts, contravenes Australia’s obligations under the Refugees Convention, will cause significant harm to the people who it directly affects and is, in my opinion, not fair at all. The current government’s asylum seeker policy platform is punitive in its design and operationalisation.

The delays are not caused by a system overwhelmed by numbers, but by a deliberate policy decision and social workers around the country will soon be dealing with the consequences of this decision. The time awaiting a determination of a refugee claim will be spent either in detention (and the human rights, mental and physical health implications of this are well documented) or in severe poverty.

Most asylum seekers arriving after August last year are released into the community on a bridging visa. ACOSS is currently spearheading a much needed campaign to raise the Newstart Allowance which is set at $102 per week below the poverty line. Asylum seekers released from detention are eligible for a living allowance set at 89% of the Centrelink equivalent. They do not have work rights and so have no lawful means of earning additional income. Unless there is a policy change, they will likely have to wait 5 years or more before having their claims assessed and their status determined.

The enforced poverty and marginalisation which is likely to result from this policy will place ever more pressure on nongovernment charitable organisations, particularly those operating with little or no government funding.

This delay in processing will also ensure that families separated through refugee flight remain separated for a great many years. It is perhaps worse than the TPVs in effect from 1999 to 2008. Refugees who are granted permanent residency in Australia at the expiration of the no advantage delay will be prohibited from sponsoring their families to join them through the refugee family reunion program. Again, the psychological implications of this do not need spelling out.

These policies have been introduced under the guise of saving lives – of stopping refugees from risking their lives on dangerous boats.

The policies put in place are designed for domestic political consumption, to appear tough on border protection, and elections have been won and lost on this issue. The policies are not designed to respond to the needs of refugees. In Indonesia last year I met Ishmael. Ishmael was on the Tampa in 2001. He was transferred to Nauru under the Pacific Solution and was detained there. Eventually he took a voluntary repatriation package and returned to Afghanistan. Unfortunately the situation in Afghanistan was still not safe for him and he survived further persecution. He escaped again and ten years later arrived back in Indonesia and boarded a boat for Australia. The boat was intercepted and he was taken into Indonesian immigration detention. He spent 12 months in detention, 9 of which were in lock down for 23 hours each day in a small cell with several other men. He was found to be a refugee and is now in community housing. Hopefully he will soon arrive in Australia, 12 years after first seeking refuge here.

Given the number of refugees overseas and complex geo-politics, Australia is limited in what we can do to protect the lives of people far away. We can and should do more. But it is entirely within our power to decide how refugees who do reach our shores are treated and to demonstrate our care for those very same lives that we do not want people to risk on boats.

As social workers we are ideally placed to insist that human stories are not lost in this important policy debate.