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A group of women in a line facing the camera, wearing colourful vests and holding a banner saying walking from Melbourne to Canberra.
A long walk to freedom

Refugees complete a long walk to freedom

The Record
Advocacy
13/12/2023 12:00 PM

A group of 22 refugee women from Iranian and Tamil backgrounds completed a walk from Melbourne to Canberra to call attention to the need for permanent visas for refugees in Australia.

The trek began in Melbourne in mid- September and ended in Canberra four weeks later, when a group of 22 refugee women from Iranian and Tamil backgrounds completed their mission to call attention to the need for permanent visas for refugees in Australia.

Known as Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality, the women were some of the more than 10,000 people who were left out of the decision in February by the Labor government to grant permanent visas to those on Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas.

Many in their situation have no rights to study in Australia after the age of 18. Some have no rights to work. They cannot apply for family reunion with loved ones overseas.

Their walk comes after Neil Para, a Sri Lankan refugee who was also in their situation, was given permanent residency after walking from Ballarat to Sydney.

The women were asking for permanent visas for all those who were imprisoned in the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru and for the abolition of the unfair “Fast Track” system for refugee status determination. This system, deliberately designed by the previous government, has led to a rapid decline in positive assessments and appeals. Although the ALP’s platform in 2015 promised to abolish it, action is yet to be taken.

Some of the group are mothers whose children have never met their grandparents or whose children will not be able to study in higher education of any kind.

The 640 km walk ended at Parliament House on 18 October where a large rally welcomed their arrival and heard participants explain their circumstances. Rathi Barthlote said, ‘We are refugees who came to Australia seeking safety, but after a decade still do not have a clear pathway to permanent residency.

‘I lost my first child because of the Sri Lankan civil war and I haven’t seen my mother for 18 years. It breaks my heart that my mother is living alone and I cannot reunite with my family.’

Ms Barthlote added, ‘All of us are still waiting, after 10 years, for a permanent place to call home, a place to belong.’

Asylum Seeker Resource Centre director of advocacy Ogy Simic said the women had shown courage: ‘The Australian government must now listen, abolish the flawed ‘fast track’ system, and offer the 10,000 people failed by the system for 10 years a clear path to permanency.’

Joining the women was Tamil asylum seeker Thienushan Chandrasekaram, who cycled to Canberra from Brisbane, averaging 90km a day. He came to Australia with his family in 2013 but is still awaiting a decision on his permanent residency.

‘My aim is to present my case to the minister for home affairs and the minister for immigration not just for me and my family but for whole community of 12,000 like me struggling on bridging visas or no visas,’ he said.

The St Vincent de Paul Society calls for Australian Government action to:

  • provide an adequate safety net for all asylum seekers and implement a fairer process for all affected by the unjust fast track process.
  • resettle all people still subject to offshore processing and immediately move people held in PNG to Australia while they await resettlement.
  • legislate to make immigration detention a last resort, limited to a maximum of 90 days, and improve the living conditions of those that must be detained for security reasons.
  • increase the annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 by 2025-26, increase the community support program to 10,000 (making it additional), accept refugees in South-East Asian countries within these increased intakes and reform the family reunion process.
  • conduct a parliamentary inquiry into immigration detention both offshore and onshore starting in 2023.

Read the Society’s policy documents on assisting asylum seekers and refugees.

Read the Summer 2023 edition of The Record