On the 7th of April, all remaining refugees who were in onshore detention due to Medevac were released. This comes after 20 refugees were released across Australia days prior on 2 April 2022. Most of these refugees have been held in detention both offshore and onshore for 9 years.
The refugees, many of which were detained offshore on Nauru or Papua New Guinea were transferred to onshore detention in Australia. Australia’s makeshift detention and alternative place of detention (APODs) are based in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, Northern Territory, South Australia, and Western Australia.
Onshore and Offshore Processing
Many of these people seeking asylum arrived by boat, which is considered unlawful due to their mode of arrival under the Migration Act 1958. Anyone who arrives in Australia without a lawful visa is detained until the processing of their new visa applications. However, as a matter of policy, as these refugees arrived by boat, the government has prevented any of these refugees from applying for any permanent or pathways to permanent visas since 2014. Hence, they were transferred to regional processing facilities primarily in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. For the duration of their time in detention, there was great uncertainty about the future of the detainees who were living in what the United Nations deemed torturous conditions. Since then, at least 986 refugees have been resettled in the United States as part of an agreement between the Turnbull and Obama administrations. However, those with pending applications to the United States continue to await an outcome about their situation in Australia.
Due to the lack of adequate health care and facilities in these processing centres, many refugees required urgent medical care and treatment. Under the Medevac law, refugees were urgently transferred to Australia for medical support but were still detained in detention centres in Australia. Once Medevac was appealed, refugees were transferred temporarily to these detention centres for treatment; they were known as “transitory people” under the Migration Act 1958. However, despite receiving medical treatment, they were still detained in hotel rooms with no outside access. Furthermore, in recent months detainees experienced a fire at one hotel, a COVID outbreak, and maggots in their food.
Refugees on Bridging Visas
Many from the recently released cohort will be placed on a Bridging Visa E. This is a temporary visa provided while visa holders make arrangements to leave Australia or wait for an immigration decision. Since the government is unwilling to provide visas for these refugees, the latter does not apply. The visa lasts six months and has working rights but no study rights for anyone 18 years old or older. Under s 46B of the Migration Act 1958, transitory people are unable to make any visa applications. Subsequently, this requires the Minister of Home Affairs to ‘lift’ or temporarily exempt the bar of s 46B for all transitory people on Bridging Visa E’s. They must be done individually for each visa holder via an invitation to re-apply during this bar lift. Accordingly, the bar to ‘lift’ generally lasts two weeks, requiring all re-applications for a new Bridging Visa E to be lodged by applicants within that time frame.
However, releasing refugees on Bridging Visa E is not a new approach by the government. The government has sporadically released transitory clients from detention and placed them on Bridging Visas. The government has provided no insight into how they choose who they release which has resulted in greater uncertainty for those who remained in onshore detention. The release of the remaining people in onshore detention into the community on Bridging Visas has left many refugees and advocates confused and frustrated as to why the government did not instigate this option at the beginning.
Although the Bridging Visa E provides a temporary solution, many holders are awaiting responses from the United States and Canada’s re-settlement options. These options provide refugees a permanent place of settlement. With the government’s recent announcement of the resettlement deal with New Zealand, it is certain that many will also apply to New Zealand. However, this deal, which was originally offered 9 years ago, has garnered criticism because of the timing of the deal with the upcoming election, and the fact that New Zealand had offered resettlement in 2013.
Although it has been confirmed that those under Medevac have been released, there is a lack of information from the Department of Home Affairs on whether those who arrived after Medivac have been repealed have been released. According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, 10 refugees are still held in detention in Australia - but their fate remains unknown.