Family-friendly policies apply only to some
Adele Horin
Sydney Morning Herald
27 October 2001

Australia now expects refugees to adjust to life in a new country without any hope of their loved ones joining them, writes Adele Horin.

Before my father's family left Poland in the early 1930s bound for Australia, they went to a photographic studio for a formal portrait. I have always loved that photo, the children dressed in their best, my father, aged about seven, staring out with big, soulful eyes, in anticipation of the long sea journey ahead.

Missing from the group shot of the two boys, two girls and their mother is their father. My grandfather had already made the escape from virulent anti-Semitism two years earlier. In the long tradition of migration and escape, he had gone first to Australia to establish himself before bringing out the family.

Last week's tragic drowning of 356 people off Indonesia sheds light on a particularly shameful aspect of the Government's policy towards asylum seekers. Despite its pro-family rhetoric, the Government has deliberately prevented families from being reunited when the man - to cite the usual case - has gone before.

Until two years ago, refugees, having proved their bona fides, were allowed to sponsor their immediate families under the family reunion category. It was not only humane but sane policy. A family man, cut off and grieving for his family, is a poor resettlement prospect.

But then the Government changed the rules in late 1999. It created a new, second-class category of refugee. Refugees who arrived by boat would get only a temporary protection visa. They could not bring their families to Australia nor leave the country nor access English lessons. At the end of three years they could apply for permanent status.

But in September, with hysteria mounting over boat arrivals, even this sliver of hope for permanency was dashed. New regulations were passed to ensure the refugees who came by boat would always be "temporary". They could never apply for permanent status and could never bring their families to join them. "We're making second-class citizens out of these people," Radio National's Damien Carrick put to Philip Ruddock in early October. "That's right," the Immigration Minister replied.

To this extent at least, "policy failure", as Kim Beazley called it, indeed directly contributed to the deaths of some of the women and children in huge waves in the Java Sea last week. Though their menfolk had been accepted as refugees in Australia, the women and children faced the prospect of never being able to see them again.

No measure is beyond the pale for the Government when it comes to demonising asylum seekers and punishing refugees. Having been forced with barely disguised disdain into allowing some refugees to stay, the Government set about making life as miserable as humanly possible for them.

The introduction of the temporary protection visa, supposedly as a deterrent, has not deterred the men from coming. But worse, it has created an incentive for women and children to risk the same perilous sea journey. Government policy now denies the wives and children of these refugees the possibility of a safe and legal arrival so they resort to desperate measures to be reunited. What an irony the pro-family Government uses the denial of family reunion as a weapon against some of the world's most vulnerable people. How ironic that a Government that has championed "fathers' rights", and given emphasis to the importance of fathers in children's lives, should deprive these fathers of a life with their children.

But Beazley is on shaky ground, and not just for political reasons, when he talks of the Government's "policy failure". He had in mind the Government's relations with Indonesia. But on the policy of temporary protection visas, and prohibiting family reunions, Labor went along with the Government. Wringing its collective hands, Labor refused to join with the Democrats in 1999 and again in September to disallow the new rules.

Now the faces of the dead children haunt us. Would it have wrecked the fabric of our society if we had allowed these children to join their fathers?

In the UN refugee convention the "unity of the family" is cited as an essential right of the refugee, and governments are urged to maintain that unity "particularly where the head of the family has fulfilled the necessary conditions for admission".

The restoration of family reunion rights to these refugees would be a small but important step in the right direction. It might save a child's life. It might salvage a shred of decency for the country. As it is, Australia's reputation for running a racist immigration policy, laid to rest in the past 30 years, is being speedily revived.

My grandfather doted on his wife, and she had to push him, so the story goes, to leave her and strike out for Australia. Thank goodness he went when he did. And thank goodness the rest of the family was allowed to join him. I wish as much for the families in peril today.

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