UK markets close in 6 hours 42 minutes
  • FTSE 100

    6,659.76
    +5.75 (+0.09%)
     
  • FTSE 250

    20,531.44
    +83.08 (+0.41%)
     
  • AIM

    1,199.45
    +1.04 (+0.09%)
     
  • GBP/EUR

    1.1325
    +0.0034 (+0.30%)
     
  • GBP/USD

    1.3738
    +0.0006 (+0.04%)
     
  • BTC-GBP

    22,750.56
    -571.83 (-2.45%)
     
  • CMC Crypto 200

    627.80
    -12.12 (-1.89%)
     
  • S&P 500

    3,849.62
    -5.74 (-0.15%)
     
  • DOW

    30,937.04
    -22.96 (-0.07%)
     
  • CRUDE OIL

    52.99
    +0.38 (+0.72%)
     
  • GOLD FUTURES

    1,844.20
    -6.70 (-0.36%)
     
  • NIKKEI 225

    28,635.21
    +89.03 (+0.31%)
     
  • HANG SENG

    29,297.53
    -93.73 (-0.32%)
     
  • DAX

    13,847.75
    -23.24 (-0.17%)
     
  • CAC 40

    5,539.96
    +16.44 (+0.30%)
     

A legal limbo without end: the people who came by boat but never found home in Australia

Lauren Martin
·5-min read

Elaheh carried an old family pocket watch, not because it was of special use to a young woman recently out of university and in love, but because it happened to be with her when she had to leave in a hurry. Hani strapped a copy of The Alchemist around her waist, because she dreamed of someday learning to read the fabled novel about destiny. Zaki just packed some clothes and papers, and put on the bravest face a teenage boy could muster.

None of them knew what they would need, only what they were leaving behind.

“I’d seen stuff like it in the movies,” says Elaheh of her sudden flight from Iran. “But when you watch these things, they’re so far from your life that you don’t even feel any kind of empathy, you know?”

Elaheh is one of six refugees and asylum seekers who spoke extensively about life in Australia’s so-called “legacy caseload” for Temporary, an eight-part podcast series co-produced by the University of New South Wales and Guardian Australia.

That legacy caseload is made up of 30,000 people who live in the Australian community but are stuck in limbo, subjected to a cruel and arbitrary process destined to keep them “temporary” forever. These people have been effectively silenced by the legal regime that has built up around them, less notorious than Australia’s offshore process but just as nefarious.

The people interviewed in Temporary are each at a different stage of their complex asylum process. None of them knew, as they grabbed their things, that they were bound for Australia, where there was growing panic about their arrival.

In Australia, almost 250 years after Captain James Cook’s boat sailed in and set in motion a new claim in the British empire, Elaheh, Hani and Zaki would be called “unauthorised maritime arrivals”. They were cause for alarm.

This alarm was spreading across the vast, sparsely populated continent in the southern hemisphere, though it hardly registered abroad. It didn’t rate much notice amid Prince William marrying a commoner, Xi Jinping ascending as China’s leader, Osama bin Laden perishing at the hands of US Navy Seals, Syria’s dictator starting a slaughter of his own people, or Donald Trump hosting new seasons of The Apprentice.

In Australia’s parliament, though, an energetic MP named Scott Morrison held the immigration portfolio in opposition, and he certainly did detect the sense of alarm. You could say he directed it. Eager to govern, he and his party ensured that the issue stayed on the front pages in Australia. Not Elaheh or Hani or Zaki: individual names and faces were subsumed into numbers. The numbers of boats. The numbers of people on the boats. The then-Labor government floundered as their opponents fashioned around these faceless people a public fear.

The pressure grew so great that the embattled government tried to seize the debate by reinvigorating the “Pacific Solution”, again locking up asylum seekers in remote, offshore camps. As the opposition kept hammering the idea that Australia was experiencing a “border protection crisis”, a fraught Labor party dumped its leader and installed a new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, who dramatically declared that no person who came by boat, even if found to be a refugee, would ever be settled in Australia. Permanent protection here was suddenly out of the picture.

It wasn’t enough to win the politics.

Morrison is a skilled marketer, and his approach proved effective. By 2013, a popular “stop the boats” slogan helped to carry the Liberal-National coalition into government – where they remain today.

By 2019, President Trump was tweeting his admiration of Australia’s innovative manoeuvres to deter people fleeing for their lives. And now-prime minister Scott Morrison was proudly displaying a boat-shaped trophy with the words “I stopped these” in the highest office in the land.

Related: Handcuffed asylum seekers 'paraded like criminals' in Australian hospitals, doctors say

But what about the people caught up in all that campaigning – whose boats arrived but whose lives were paused? When the Coalition government took power in 2013, these people’s refugee claims were either frozen or had not even begun.

Elaheh, Hani, Zaki and many others like them survived the seas to start asylum stories still without an ending.

Forced to leave their home and families, they sought protection in Australia. Here they became a number – called by their “boat ID”. They were labelled “illegals”, even though under international law, seeking asylum is legal, no matter how you arrive or what papers you carry. They were put through identity checks, health checks and security checks.

And then they waited.

First, they waited in remote Australian detention centres, waiting to be sent to even more remote offshore detention centres. But the offshore centres were soon full. Eventually these people were sent into the Australian community – to wait for further instructions.

To wait then, sometimes for years, for the minister to lift the bar and allow them to apply for asylum.

To wait to make their case for protection in an interview and then wait for a decision – something that thousands still await today.

If their claim is not accepted, to wait through an appeals process even though the grounds for doing so are now very narrow.

If their claim is accepted and they are found to be a refugee, the best they can hope for is a temporary protection visa (TPV). These visas don’t allow you to bring your family to Australia. You cannot travel freely. You cannot become a citizen. TPVs are out of step with Australia’s past practices and practices in other parts of the world, where refugees are generally given permanent protection.

On these temporary visas, it is only a few years before the process begins all over again. This is the best-case scenario for members of the legacy caseload under Australia’s current policy.

Even today, when the political slogans have moved on from boats, these people are in Australia but stuck on the outer, clinging to their keepsakes and dreams, in a legal limbo without end. They are Temporary. In this series, they let us into their lives.

  • Temporary is a project from the UNSW Centre for Ideas and Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law in partnership with Guardian Australia, inspired by the book Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs by Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong.