Thousands of asylum seekers given days to lodge complex applications or face loss of rights

Immigration department tells those on fast-track system they will lose welfare payments, Medicare access and even right to claim asylum if forms not completed

Thousands of asylum seekers on the so-called fast track for refugee determination have been told they will lose welfare payments, access to Medicare and even their right to claim asylum unless they submit complex applications for protection within days.

Letters sent by the immigration department this month, seen by Guardian Australia, variously give asylum seekers 60 days – or 30 or 14 days in subsequent letters – to lodge complete applications.

Thousands of asylum have been sent the letters over the course of several weeks, placing more demand on already-stretched legal services.

About 24,000 people who arrived in Australia by boat between August 2012 and December 2013 are on the fast-track system for refugee assessment, which was introduced in December 2014. It strips key review rights from asylum seekers, and expands ministerial powers to prevent initial decisions being challenged.

Before it was introduced, 90% of asylum applicants were found to have valid protection claims. Under fast track that number has fallen to about 70%.

The system has been promoted by government as a mechanism to streamline the asylum protection system and deter its abuse, but critics have said it sets people up to fail.

Many asylum seekers on the fast track have spent years in Australia, prevented from applying for protection because of backlogs in the system.

But a statement placed on the department’s website saying the bar had been lifted was followed by hundreds of letters being sent out, instructing asylum seekers they must submit complete applications within the shortened time limits or face sanctions, including the potential loss of any support payments, having their bridging visa cancelled and work rights revoked, losing access to Medicare or even having their right to claim asylum withdrawn.

“If you do not lodge an application within 30 days of the date of this letter, any status resolution support services payments you are receiving through the Department of Human Services may be ceased and you may lose access to financial hardship payment and other support services. Payments and services may only be restored if you lodge an application,” one letter said.

“If you do not lodge an application within 30 days of the date of this letter we may not grant you another bridging visa. This will mean you may be an unlawful non-citizen. You will lose access to Medicare and permission to work in Australia. The minister has the power to revoke his decision allowing you to lodge a visa application.”

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection refused to comment on the letters it had sent out.

Asylum seeker advocacy groups say they have been swamped with “deeply distressed” asylum seekers fearing they face detention or deportation if they do not complete their applications quickly and correctly. About 12,000 asylum seekers have not submitted an application. Many are on waiting lists for legal assistance of up to a year.

The chief executive of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, Kon Karapanagiotidis, said government funding of legal support for refugees and asylum seekers had been cut by 90%.

“Many of these people have been waiting four years to be invited by the government to lodge their asylum claims. When they are finally given the opportunity to do so, they are facing unfeasibly tight deadlines with life-changing implications if they do not get it right,” Karapanagiotidis said.

“It is yet another attack on people seeking asylum who want nothing more than a fair chance to present their claims for asylum so they can begin to rebuild their lives in peace in our community.”

Melinda Jackson, principal solicitor with the centre’s human rights law program, said the process of applying for asylum was incredibly complicated – a 60-page document combined with a detailed statement of claim, all to be completed in English, sometimes people’s third or fourth language.

Jackson said applications prepared with the assistance of a lawyer were much more likely to be approved, but that community legal services were already “at capacity”.

“Because of the fundamentally unfair fast-track process which severely limits people’s right to review any negative decision, the visa application process is our client’s one chance at being granted asylum. People fleeing harm deserve to be offered a realistic chance to rebuild their lives with their family here in our community.

“Community legal services are already operating at capacity. We need more lawyers right now who can support people through the process, but more than this we need the Australian government to restore funding for essential legal services.”

Under the fast-track system, no additional information may be added to an asylum claim once it is submitted, even if a person’s circumstances change. A change in an applicant’s claim can be taken to impact upon their “credibility” in assessment, and be cause for their claim to be dismissed.

In one case detailed to Guardian Australia, an Iranian asylum seeker was unable to add the information that an arrest warrant had been issued for him in Iran.

Previously, asylum seekers who could tell the department they were on a waiting list to receive legal advice on their asylum claim were given an extension of time to apply. It is understood that reason is no longer being accepted.

In establishing the fast-track system, the immigration department said it was necessary to “deter abuse of the review system through the late presentation of claims that could reasonably have been presented earlier” and “deliver the consistent message that it is extremely important to provide sufficient evidence and information to establish protection claims up front”.

Australia’s system was inspired by the UK’s Detained Fast-Track system, which was established to counter alleged abuses of the asylum system. The UK high court and court of appeal both ruled the system was “structurally unfair and unjust”.

Expedited assessment processes in the US have been found to lead to more claims being appealed to superior courts, resulting in increased costs and decreased efficiency.

In February, the Italian government created 14 fast-track asylum appeal courts in a bid to speed up decisions on deporting migrants ruled to have no valid claim for protection. The courts were approved by cabinet, and have come into force, but must be approved by parliament within two months.


Ben Doherty

The GuardianTramp

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