Limbo without Limits

The Perils of the Bridging Visa

What a foul government.  Insidious, loathsome, but more to the point, imitative.  If you are, members of the Gillard government, going to be ruthless, can you at least be inventive?  In performing this act of sheer flattery to the Howard government’s now un-shelved policies – the introduction of bridging visas – the Gillard government has done itself the good favour of deserving a proper 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 telenovelas on the loop and leave politics for good.

Minister for Immigration Chris 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 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  “humanitarian response” involving Malaysian authorities, the same ones who have militantly refused to ratify the range of protections offered for refugees at international law? (That record of brutality and lack of protections has been documented.)  The fact that Labor is not actually putting its own political interests ahead of national ones? Much of this is, at the end of the day, futile – even the Gods campaign in vain against stupidity, but this stupidity is of a cruel genus.

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.  Mind you, the catch here is what their status will be – Howard’s temporary protection visa, abolished buy the Rudd government, comes to mind.  The “no advantage” principle is to apply – meaning that they will be treated as if their claims for asylum had been processed offshore.  Put simply, as those individuals on offshore detention facilities cannot work, it follows that those who are released into the Australian community will be treated the same way.  Their legal status is effectively shackled.

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.”  Ergo, some form of transport is preferable over others – it’s just that the immigration minister is not a fan of the deadly, vicious maritime option.

What has been so conspicuous about 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 shores with legitimate claims could be banged up.  Effectively, unlawful arrivals were being penalised and have been ever since, for their manner of arrival.  This is prohibited by the Convention, but sovereign states have decided otherwise.  The de-legitimising of refugee claims has been gathering steam and the Gillard government, robotic as it is, continues in those steps.  The excision of Australia, 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” (Bordermail, November 22).

A few astonishing features come to mind with this bridging visa proposal, specially targeting “irregular maritime arrivals” or IMAs. On any decent assessment of this policy, it is counterproductive.  It potentially prevents a process of integration – in fact, you might go so far as to suggest that it hinders it altogether.  Placing a subject who is a genuine refugee on a bridging visa as their permanent status is determined while disallowing them from working during that time is a recipe for an underground economy.  “I don’t want an underclass to be created in Australia,” argues the vocal Labor Senator Dough Cameron.  This is government at its worst: inciting its subjects (or at least those who it claims are potential subjects) to break rules.

Creating such an underclass is a recipe for social corrosion (small businesses might disagree) but one wonders whether that might be what a government that works the mills of cheap populism might want.  Government is, after all, a problem for every solution, and the number of problems keeps growing.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.