The perils of the bridging visa

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The Gillard Government’s new bridging visas are a counter-productive recipe for social corrosion, says Dr Binoy Kampmark.

IF YOU ARE members of the Gillard government, looking to be ruthless — could you not at least be inventive?

In performing this act of sheer flattery to the Howard government’s now unshelved policies – the introduction of bridging visas – the Gillard government has done itself the favour of deserving annihilation at the polls.  When a government can make an individual such as Tony Abbott look enlightened, it is time to either watch Latin American telenovellas on the loop or leave politics for good.

Minister for Immigration Christopher Bowen is still stinging from the defeat of the Malaysian Solution. Swipes have been forthcoming against both the Opposition leader and the High Court. A media release from the Immigration Department on November 25 reveals much:
The Malaysia Arrangement presented a genuinely innovative regional and humanitarian response to the people smuggling problem, but the High Court’s decision and Tony Abbott putting his political interests ahead of the national interest, prevent the government from pursuing this option. 

Where do you start in assessing the merits of this statement?

The fact that there could be a “humanitarian response” involving Malaysian authorities – the same ones who have militantly refused to ratify the range of protections offered for refugees at international law – defies credulity. (That record of brutality and lack of protections has been well documented.)

The irony is, Labor is not even putting its own political interests ahead of national ones.

The Government has been desperate to find a way of coping with the maritime arrivals. It is all too aware that regional processing facilities at Manus Island and Nauru are filling up ― rapidly.  Enter then, the bridging visa ― which ostensibly relieves the pressure on the detention facilities by releasing asylum seekers into the community.  The catch here is that the “no advantage” principle is to apply ― meaning that they will be treated as if their claims for asylum had been processed offshore. So, as individuals on offshore detention facilities cannot work ― it follows that those who are released into the Australian community will be treated the same way. Despite being in the Australian community — their legal status is effectively shackled.

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Bowen’s rationale is as ever, scatty:
“If you argue against the ‘no advantage’ test and say that people should get a permanent visa when they arrive in Australia, you are saying that they should be advantaged over those asylum seekers who don’t get on a boat, and that’s not something that I think is fair or reasonable.” 

In other words, some form of transport is preferable over others ― and the immigration minister is not a fan of the deadly, vicious, maritime option.

What’s become so conspicuous about recent Australian political debate has been a hollowing out of the term “refugee”.

The word’s connection to the UN Refugee Convention 1951 has been severed.

The process was already taking place in the 1990s; the embrace of mandatory detention by the Keating government affirmed that those arriving on our shores with legitimate claims could be banged up. Effectively, unlawful arrivals were being penalised – and have been ever since – for their mode of arrival.

This is prohibited by the Convention, but sovereign states have unilaterally decided for themselves otherwise. The de-legitimising of refugee claims has been gathering steam, and the Gillard government continues these steps. The excision of the Australian mainland from the Australian migration zone – a conceptually daft, and even dangerous, ploy – furthers the program. This is banal bureaucracy ― and it is insidious.

David Manne of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre describes the effect of the new rules:
'The very people that we’re meant to be protecting, are going to be put into the community into a situation where they face limbo without limits, and also the real risk of destitution without work rights.'

This bridging visa proposal, which specially targets “irregular maritime arrivals” or IMAs, is – on any decent assessment of this policy – counterproductive. It potentially prevents a process of integration— and could be argued to hinder it altogether. Placing a subject who is a genuine refugee on a bridging visa as their permanent status is determined, while at the same time disallowing them from working, is a recipe for an underground economy.

“I don’t want an underclass to be created in Australia,” argues the vocal Labor Senator Doug Cameron.

The truth is, this is government at its worst ― inciting its subjects (or potential subjects) to become adept at breaking the rules simply to survive.

Creating such an underclass is a recipe for social corrosion.

(Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com.)

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