A Fast Track to Failure
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A Fast Track to Failure

Stories/87 , Issues/Refugees , Issues/Policy
Refugee Advice & Casework Service, Randwick NSW 2031, Australia
21st Jul 2017
A Fast Track to Failure
In an interview with the Executive Director of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, Divya exposes the Australian Government's First Track application scheme and its dire impact on the lives of some of Australia's newest arrivals.

One of the most politicised issues in Australia over the last decade has again broken to the fore of national news. Immigration Minister Dutton and his team, as part of their Fast Track application scheme, quietly began sending out letters to the homes of asylum seekers last week, informing them, in no couched terms, that their ability to apply for refugee status would depend on whether they could throw together a haphazard claim for protection— likely missing vital documents which are either drowned, destroyed or back in their hometowns— within the next sixty days. For those living on bridging visas, which ration out security ninety days at a time, this kind of letter means the potential upending of a family, of a home, of a life.

I spoke to Executive Director of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, Tanya Jackson-Vaughan, to find out exactly what will come of this.

RACS helps those seeking asylum within Australia through a combination of specific casework, filling out visa applications, writing statements and advocacy. The centre runs outreach clinics at Auburn and Parramatta where large communities of refugees live, though their main office is based in Randwick, where UNSW gave them free premises after legal centre funding was dramatically slashed in 2014.

"The Department has been sending out letters, one hundred at a time," Ms Jackson-Vaughan tells me. "It causes a lot of confusion in the community, because a neighbour will get a letter and then everyone will be tense, on edge, wondering when theirs will come." The Department has so far been sending letters to hundreds of asylum seekers who arrived in 2012 and have not yet lodged their applications.

"This may seem like a long time," Ms Jackson-Vaughan acknowledges. However, for the first three years of their time in Australia, there was a bar placed on any protection visa applications. This bar could only be lifted through Ministerial discretion.

"Of course", she says wryly, "those asylum seekers were eventually allowed to apply... but this happened at about the same time that the funding to legal centres was cut." RACS, along with a number of refugee organisations in Victoria and Queensland, has been leading the legal battle to keep asylum seekers in the country where they have settled into communities, enrolled children at schools and found pockets of comfort and solace within neighbourhoods of urban and rural Australia. The cut to funding in the 2014 budget was a severe blow to legal centres across the country whose clients cannot afford their services out of pocket. However, with the recent influx of letters, RACS has been conducting more visa application sessions on weekends and at local schools. Lawyers have been working up to 18-hour days to keep up with a workload which only threatens to increase.

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Often, the issue of asylum seekers is confined in the popular media to the horrors of mandatory detention. However, it is important to acknowledge the inherent instability of the experiences of asylum seekers who have made it to our shores and face the prospect of leaving after having already begun to rebuild their lives here. What Ms Jackson-Vaughan finds particularly difficult, she says, is the fact that RACS had an arrangement with the Department; one that allowed for asylum seekers who were yet to lodge their applications to be put on a waiting list, and for this waiting list to be communicated to the Department.

"It was supposed to stop the Department harassing them, and asking why they haven't lodged their applications yet," she says. "It was to let them know that our waiting list was sitting at around 12 months, and we're getting to them as fast as we can." Yet, this arrangement does not appear to have deterred Dutton's team.

We move on to how this affects the asylum seekers that RACS has been working with, since a significant part of this relates to the mental health of asylum seekers within the community. When a population is vulnerable and faced with the prospect of filling out a 60-page application form in a language not native to them, and watches others around them being forcibly returned to detention for minor breaches of their bridging visa conditions or even having their protection claims refused; any small change can bring about waves of panic.

The system is structured such that it creates its own hurdles; hurdles which change, disappear and then re-appear, taller and more daunting than before." What is there to be done from here? "All we know is that there are big challenges ahead," says Ms Jackson-Vaughan grimly.

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