The Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has not accepted recommendations to improve protections for roughly 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers “living in the shadows” in Australia.
A new report from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) examined the human rights implications of policies affecting a group of people, known as the Legacy Caseload, who arrived in Australia by boat before 1 January 2014.
Those in the Legacy Caseload, including families and children, are treated differently from other asylum seekers due to legal and policy changes made after 2012. They have limited government support to meet their health and other needs, AHRC Commissioner Edward Santow said.
“They risk severe deterioration in their living conditions and mental health, with many at higher risk of suicide,” he argued.
“The Australian Government should improve human rights protections for these vulnerable people.”
Santow has called on the government to implement a “more thorough and fair process” for assessing claims so those in need of protection are not returned to a country where they are at risk of harm.
“The Government should also offer permanent, rather than temporary, protection for those found to be refugees,” he said.
“While they wait for their legal situation to be resolved, many people in the Legacy Caseload are at risk of poverty, with inadequate support to maintain secure housing and health care. The Government should ensure these people have the basic support needed to protect them against such harm.”
The report considered the experiences of approximately 130 people who work directly with people in the Legacy Caseload, and expressed a range of concerns, including:
- The lack of access to a fair process for determining refugee claims,
- Uncertainty about their visa status and ongoing entitlement to protection for a prolonged period of time,
- Whether there is sufficient support for asylum seekers to maintain an adequate standard of living in the community,
- The impact of restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities,
- The ongoing risk of arbitrary detention.
“Each of these concerns raises issues regarding Australia’s compliance with its international human rights obligations,” Santow said.
In response to these concerns, the report made 31 recommendations dealing with:
- A better process to determine whether an individual is a refugee,
- Improved support for people on bridging visas, to avoid homelessness,
- The need for permanent protection for people found to be refugees,
- Addressing the problem of family separation,
- The ongoing risk of immigration detention.
“The recommendations in this report can help guide Australia towards a policy approach that reflects not only our international human rights obligations, but also our hard-earned reputation as a successful multicultural nation and safe haven for people fleeing persecution,” Santow said.
The DHA has not accepted the recommendations, but maintained that “the Government is committed to protecting the Australian community from harm”.
The recommendations further urged the DHA to “allocate additional resources to increase mental health services and support for asylum seekers in the Legacy Caseload, including suicide prevention training for Departmental staff and contracted service providers, and targeted services for children and young people”.
Their response listed the “comprehensive” processes and services that DHA implements to support mental health, including the Suicide Prevention Framework, which “maintains a multi-level suicide prevention strategy and ensures robust support services for asylum seekers and staff”.
“Mental health services provided within held detention are commensurate with community standards and are delivered by general practitioners, mental health nurses, psychologists, counsellors and psychiatrists, including those specialising in torture and trauma counselling services,” DHA said.
“Individuals, including children and young people, who are in Community Detention, are supported by appropriately qualified and skilled case workers from contracted Service Providers. Individuals are able to access mental health services and other required professional support through their contracted Health Service Provider general practitioner clinic.
“The Department’s detention health policies are regularly reviewed to ensure they meet the needs of the immigration detention cohort and are aligned to best clinical practice.”
The Asylum Seekers Centre CEO, Frances Rush, said the DHA’s “lack of effective and efficient processing” can be detrimental to the mental health of refugees.
“Since 2017 we have seen around 14 single men from Iran and Sri Lanka, who are part of the Legacy Caseload, attempt suicide.”