The St Vincent de Paul Society condemns the Government’s announcement as cruel, morally reprehensible and a fundamental repudiation of Australia’s moral and legal obligations to those seeking asylum. We have called on the Government to revoke the arbitrary October deadline for submitting applications and to provide additional funding for legal support and interpreting services for those preparing claims.
Australia has an obligation to protect people fleeing persecution and to uphold the standards of procedural fairness when assessing refugee claims. Access to asylum can mean the difference between life and death. If due process fails, there is an increased likelihood that people will be wrongly refused protection and endangered by deportation to their country of origin.
The arbitrary deadline will effectively coerce people into lodging their application without legal assistance, increasing the risk that they will be returned to harm or persecution. It is the latest in a series of measures used by the Government to make applying for protection as difficult as possible. Since 2014, the Government has:
- Created complex and confusing application forms that are very difficult to complete without legal assistance;
- Removed funding for most legal support and interpreting/translating services for asylum seekers;
- Narrowed the criteria for refugee status; and,
- Removed access to proper review processes, which means if someone makes a mistake on their application form they may have limited appeal rights.
Without legal advice, asylum seekers may not have the opportunity to prepare an application that properly details their claims for protection. The threat of deportation heightens the likelihood that applications will be poorly prepared, thereby increasing the risk of a negative decision for those with legitimate claims for asylum.
To support asylum seekers through the complex and convoluted application process, it is crucial the Government reinstate funding for legal assistance and interpreting services. Many who are yet to lodge their application have in fact ‘engaged’ with legal centres. However, as a result of Government policy, many legal centres are severely overstretched, with lengthy waiting lists.
Those affected by this process have waited years for the opportunity to apply for refugee protection. Prolonged uncertainty, enforced poverty, and the ever-present threat of deportation has brought many to the edge of despair. Professor Nicholas Proctor recently described the increase in suicides and suicide attempts among this cohort, and characterised their predicament as one of ‘lethal hopelessness’, with many ‘being at advanced stages of feeling mentally trapped, figuratively boxed in, especially hopeless and helpless’. For these asylum seekers, there is a real risk that the Government’s ultimatum will be a tipping point, pushing them over the edge.
Those who fail to meet the 1 October deadline will have their income support payments cut off while they await deportation. Some have already lost their support payments. Cutting off income support is cruel, inhumane and will only lead to further stress and mental deterioration. Current benefits are not enough to live on, and withdrawing these meagre payments will place asylum seekers in an untenable situation.
We call on the Government to immediately restore funding to legal assistance services, and to ensure those yet to make an application are given appropriate time and support to do so. They should not be threatened with deportation or the loss of benefits during this time.