Elham Amareh is used to feeling fear and uncertainty, having fled Iran with her husband, son and daughter and making the treacherous journey to Australia by boat in 2013.
- Elham Amareh has been on a bridging visa for almost ten years
- Her family fled Iran as asylum seekers
- Many refugees, like Ms Amareh, struggle to find stability on six-month bridging visas
“My family is very strict with religion, and I didn’t follow my religion, and because I lose my hijab and lose my religion [sic]I cannot go back,” she said.
“If I return to my country, they will kill me straight away, and they will kill my daughter as well.”
Ms Amareh has lived in Australia for a decade now, but her attempts to secure a protection visa have been denied.
Instead, her family has lived on six-month bridging visas for most of that time.
Life’s uncertainties became too much to bear in January this year, when her 16-year-old daughter was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma – a type of blood cancer.
“I am depressed [and] I can’t sleep,” she said.
“My whole family is depressed about [my daughter].
“As a mum, it’s hard when I see my child sick.
“I can’t go back to my country [because] it is hard to find her treatment in my country, and very expensive.”
People in limbo for years
Ms Amareh gradually reduced her work hours after her daughter’s diagnosis, and eventually quit, to spend more time at the hospital.
She said her husband was too depressed to work more than a few days each week, and her family was currently living in a house offered up as a short-term option by a friend.
While her visa arrangements include Medicare access, other supports such as those available through Centrelink are not included.
“I’ve been here a long time, we pay taxes, and we have children here,” she said.
“I just want a good life for my kids.”
Immigration lawyer Chris Johnston said there were many others across the country struggling to find stability under current visa arrangements.
He said some were asylum seekers, like Ms Amareh, who had been denied refugee status, but were unable to return safely to their home country – creating a state of limbo.
“The system is messy, and it leaves many people in limbo for long periods of time,” he said.
“People are on bridging visas for up to a decade, and their life goes on [and] their children grow up and they’re still on bridging visas.
“There’s the uncertainty of, ‘If I get this visa refused, am I going to be put into detention? If I get put into detention, am I going to be deported?’
“It’s very stressful.”
Mr Johnston said the six-monthly renewal requirement, as well as some restrictions on access to healthcare, welfare, and education, made it extremely difficult for traumatized people to move on with their lives.
“They’re spending a lot of time just trying to access things, and get the basics for life,” he said.
Mr Johnston suggested a longer time frame between renewal could be applied, to reduce the pressure of six-monthly applications.
Giving refugees permanency
Around the same time Ms Amareh arrived in Australia, the number of asylum seekers traveling to the country by boat was increasing dramatically.
Successive Labor and Coalition governments brought in a range of policies designed to stop the arrival of boats carrying asylum seekers and deter people smuggling.
When the last Labor government was defeated in 2013, the Coalition reintroduced Temporary Protection Visas, available for a period of three years for people who arrive in Australia without a visa and were found to be owed international protection obligations.
In the lead up to this year’s federal election, Labor promised to abolish that scheme, along with the Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEVs), and “transition eligible refugees onto permanent visa arrangements.”
About 19,000 refugees on TPVs and SHEVs could be “eligible” under the changes.
Mr Johnston said the government had a “difficult challenge ahead” to develop the details of that “transition” in a timely fashion.
“Immigration policy is not an easy thing to do,” he said.
“But this is the time to do it, in the first year of their term.
“We don’t want to see this go on for another three years, or another six years.
“The time to act is now.”
Immigration Minister Andrew Giles said he was “currently considering options on how best to resolve the current cohort’s visa status.”
“This Government will stop wasting taxpayer money reassessing their visas every three or five years … [and] will deliver on our commitment to convert those on temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas to permanent protection visas,” he said.
What about bridging visas?
While the new Labor Government’s plan is a source of hope to certain visa-holders, the changes won’t help others stuck on bridging visas, like Ms Amareh and her family.
She said her family was desperate to stay in the country permanently, and focus on her daughter’s treatment.
“I want to be treated like an Australian citizen,” she said.
“Please — I want this government to look after us.”
The Minister for Immigration, Andrew Giles, has the power to intervene in migration matters.
A spokesperson for the Minister said he was unable to comment on individual cases, but that “every case was assessed on its individual merits.”
The Federal Government declined to comment on whether any policy changes were being considered around bridging visas held by asylum seekers, specifically Bridging Visa E (050).