Hundreds of refugees rallied outside Home Affairs Minister Clare O’Neil’s office in Oakleigh, in south-east Melbourne, on Monday, demanding permanent visas for those who have still not gained protection more than a year after the election of the federal Labor government. 

The ALP made much of its announcement last year to allow up to 19,000 refugees to stay permanently in the country. That decision applied to temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visa holders who arrived by boat before 2014. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, ten months on from the announcement, only about one-third of those refugees have received a permanent visa

But an estimated 12,000 more asylum seekers, mainly Tamils and Iranians, are ineligible to apply for the new, permanent resolution of status visa. They continue to live in limbo on bridging visas, or without any visa, and are denied access to basic health and government services. 

“I came here by boat in 2013 with my wife”, Amin, an Iranian asylum seeker, told Red Flag. “At that time, I didn’t have any kids. But my little one was born in 2018, and since then she hasn’t had any Medicare, she doesn’t have any kind of visa—she doesn’t have any identification actually.”

The refugees say that young people on bridging visas are being denied access to any future education in Australia. “My school told me that, because I’m on a bridging visa, I cannot apply for uni. How is that fair? I completed ten years of schooling here. People here have access to HECS loans, why not us? Our parents pay taxes too”, said Laxy, a Sri Lankan refugee. 

The protesters’ demands include permanent settlement for refugees brought from Manus Island and Nauru, and the abolition of the “fast track process” and the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA). 

The IAA was introduced in 2014 as an alternative to the existing, lengthy process—but people seeking asylum often fare much worse under the new system. It involves several stages. First is an application through the Department of Home Affairs. If that’s unsuccessful, they must appeal to the IAA, which is unpredictable and complex. Only a judicial review can overturn a rejection from the IAA, a back-and-forth process that can take years.

“They accept some, they reject some; I came here with my family, and they rejected all of us except for my brother. We were in the same boat, same case, everything the same. It doesn’t make sense. There are no actual rules here. If the case officer likes you, you can stay. If they don’t like you, you get rejected”, Maryam, member of 12,000 Captive Souls and organiser of the protest, told Red Flag.

“I’ve been waiting for my court hearing for four years now. We are like a sucker ball from one office to another, and each time that they kick this ball, it takes us three or four or five years back. How many more years? I was 25 when I came, now I’m over 35. These are our lives.” 

In 2021, the ALP committed to abolish the fast track process and the IAA, admitting that the system is procedurally unfair and inconsistent. More than a year after Labor’s election, not only is the promise unfulfilled, but this year’s federal budget pledged an additional $4 million in funding to the IAA. 

Monday’s protest marked the beginning of a five-day action, which will culminate on 22 September at the office of Immigration Minister Andrew Giles in Thomastown. At 10am, people will rally to demand justice, protection and certainty for the thousands of refugees left in limbo.

From there, a long march, organised by Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality, will begin. A diverse mix of refugees have pledged to walk all the way to Parliament House in Canberra.

In a press release, Geetha Ramachandran, spokesperson for Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality, said: “It’s time for our government to listen and take meaningful action to protect and support all refugees. The suffering and uncertainty must end.”