‘We are the forgotten people’: the anguish of Australia’s ‘invisible’ asylum seekers

Nearly 29,000 asylum seekers are in Australia on temporary ‘bridging visas’. These people may be free from detention but – with many denied education, healthcare and the right to work – they remain locked in desperate poverty and with no idea what their futures hold. A Guardian Australia investigation by and

July nights were freezing. The barbecue, though, was warm, a bulwark against the cold of the descending dark.

Balan, a Tamil asylum seeker, had turned his mind already to the night ahead. He knew he could not afford to run a heater. He and his housemates needed to watch every dollar and winter was the hardest time. The last electricity bill had run to hundreds of dollars they didn’t have.

Quietly, as the shared meal came to an end, Balan gathered up the coals from the barbecue in a tin and carried them to his room. There he slept on the floor, next to the coals as they burned down. To keep the heat in, he closed the door behind him.

As he slept, the room filled with carbon monoxide.

In the morning, Balan’s brother, worried by his failure to appear for breakfast, pushed open the door. Balan had obviously realised at some point in the night that he needed to get out. He had made it halfway to the door before he collapsed.

The coals were still warm. But Balan was dead, killed by carbon monoxide poisoning.

The privation that contributed to Balan’s death didn’t occur in the straitened circumstance of a refugee camp, or on the borderlands of a war-torn region.

It happened in Sydney, to a man living legally in Australia on a bridging visa.

Afghan asylum seeker Farid in a park next to his house in western Sydney
Afghan asylum seeker Farid in a park next to his house in western Sydney. He says he dreams of one day being allowed to visit his family, who live in Iran as refugees. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

Today nearly 29,000 people live in Australia on a temporary permit to reside in the country known as a bridging visa E (BVE). Yet they are the invisible. They live in the shadows, on the fringes of Australian society.

Bridging visa E is for people who have at some stage been judged to have been “unlawfully” in Australia. Typically they are granted to asylum seekers who have arrived by boat and have made claims for refugee protection. Balan was one of these, having fled the continuing and brutal persecution of the Tamil minority in post-civil war Sri Lanka.

BVEs can be valid for 28 days or up to three years. Hundreds of people have lived on rolling visas, one temporary solution after another, for more than five years.

Many cannot access healthcare – somewhere around a third have no right to Australia’s publicly funded Medicare – despite the fact that they may carry physical and mental scars from their homelands, their journeys and their initial incarceration under Australia’s policy of mandatory detention.

Many cannot legally work. The immigration department declined to answer the Guardian’s questions about how many bridging visa holders have the right to seek employment. But information from community organisations who work with asylum seekers found only about two-thirds of bridging visa holders have work rights – despite a parliamentary deal more than a year ago that they all be granted the right to earn a living.

Those without work rights are reliant on limited government welfare, the benevolence of friends and charity, or risking their liberty taking cash-in-hand jobs in the underground economy.

A black market job offers some financial respite but leaves bridging visa holders vulnerable to exploitation by employers who may underpay them – or refuse to pay them at all – and threaten to “ring immigration” if they complain.

Delays caused by immigration department cutbacks, massive staff turnover rates and more-than-occasional bouts of bureaucratic incompetence mean asylum seekers often spend months waiting for new bridging visas to be granted – months spent living in the shadowlands of no income, no support and no healthcare: no legal right to be in the country.

Parliament heard in February that at least 1,400 people are in this position in Australia right now.

Several BVE holders report having to quit jobs because the looming expiration of their visas means they can no longer work legally.

Indeed they say they face exploitation at every step: from real estate agents who charge exorbitant penalties for late rents to salesmen who charge usurious rates of credit on white goods.

And their progression to substantive visas has been hampered by government cuts to legal services. In 2014 the government removed access for BVE holders to immigration advice. Asylum seekers have been left to navigate the byzantine process of applying for substantive visas on their own, negotiating complex forms in English – for many their third or fourth language.

As a final imposition, bridging visa holders are required to live under a punitive “code of behaviour” that not only proscribes criminal activity already outlawed by statute but prohibits them from engaging in undefined “disruptive activities that are inconsiderate [or] disrespectful”.

The prohibitions exist over and above the laws of the land but they require no charge to be laid, no evidence, no proof.

One bridging visa holder has been incarcerated for more than two years for drinking a beer on a train.

For all of the heat and light over Australia’s immigration policies, BVE holders are the forgotten. Freed from the bonds of detention, they are, supposedly, the fortunate. Often their lives only puncture the public consciousness when they end.

In the early hours of the morning of 27 October 2015, an Iranian asylum seeker, Reza Alizadeh, hanged himself in a public stairwell at Brisbane airport. He had lived on a succession of bridging visas since 2013.

In the same month an Afghan, Khodayar Amini, set himself on fire while on a video call with two refugee advocates. He said he feared being detained again.

In June, Raza, another Afghan, jumped in front of a Perth train. He was living on a bridging visa and had been interviewed by police a day earlier.

In October 2014, a 29-year-old Tamil, Leo Seemanpillai, set himself on fire outside his house. He suffered burns to 90% of his body and died in hospital.

And in February of that year, Rezene Mebrahta Engeda drowned himself in the Maribyrnong river, reportedly out of concern he was about to be deported back to Eritrea.

But those violent tragedies are the visible exceptions to the invisible rule. Tens of thousands of others on bridging visas are trapped in a dispiriting cycle of hardscrabble survival.

During a six-month investigation, the Guardian met dozens of people living in Australia on bridging visas. Over shared meals, while travelling, as they worked or relaxed, the men and women spoke almost uniformly of the endless uncertainty of their existences, the grinding poverty of their circumstances, their separation from family and community, and their difficulties finding work or education to restart interrupted lives.

Dawood, an Afghan asylum seeker on a BVE, cannot travel to see his family, or be reunited with them in Australia. He has not seen his daughter since she was three months old. She asked him if he would be home for her fifth birthday:

My wife is crying over the phone and asking me, ‘When you come, when you come?’ I say, come next month, come next season, or come next year – but four and a half years passes like that. You know, you can’t lie to your child, she is little. I want to be besides her, to celebrate her birthday like every other father. What I am going to do? They keep us in this situation. I will miss many more birthdays.

Ali Sadaat, an Iranian teenager who was on a BVE, has been detained for two years – and is now being held indefinitely on Christmas Island – for drinking a beer on a train:

I don’t want to be without freedom. Pray for me. This is real. I can’t see light at the end of the tunnel.

Shams was barred from school in Australia after one week because he had turned 18. No longer a minor BVE holder, he was no longer eligible to attend secondary school:

I was very disappointed. I went home and cried for many days. I had no work rights, no study rights. I sat all day at home either thinking or crying. Nothing to do.

Haleema, an Afghan Hazara, says she can’t afford to feed or clothe her children properly:

I can’t buy fruit. I just buy second-hand fruit, the rotten ones [that] no one buy. If I buy rice, I can’t buy bread. Most of the time I give potato to my children. I can’t buy anything else. I can’t buy shoes and uniforms for my children going to school.

A Tamil asylum seeker, speaking on condition on anonymity, fears being re-detained or deported:

We are scared to go and meet the government. We are scared they will take us and deport us. We know that has happened to people we know. People go for a meeting with the department and they just never come back.

These are the voices of those rarely heard, the stories of those holding together an existence amid the shifting sands of a capricious regime: a unsparing present before an uncertain future.

Many in their situation are afraid to speak out. Doing so, they fear, will damage their claim to refugee status or lead to them being taken into detention. Others speak only on condition of anonymity, fearful that talking publicly will be viewed as a breach of the code of behaviour they regard as an oppression.

Every bridging visa holder knows of someone who went for a routine interview with the department and never came home, taken in for detention not only indefinite and capricious but unchallengeable.

“We are the forgotten people,” one BVE holder says on a late-night outer-suburban train. “Everywhere here is heaven,” he says, gesturing out the window to the warmly lit houses outside. “But we live in hell and no one sees, so no one cares.”

Asylum seeker Zaman chooses a quiet corner in his crowded share house to speak to his wife and daughter in Afghanistan
Asylum seeker Zaman chooses a quiet corner in his crowded share house to speak to his wife and daughter in Afghanistan. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

After Balan’s death, his friends tell the Guardian the tragedy was a reminder to them all of the fragility of their existence in Australia.

“The fear of death came too close,” one says. “Things like that could happen to us here and we have no family. No one to watch out for us. If something happens, no one can help us.”

But they understand, too, how his death happened: his desire to save money, to stretch every dollar, is one they understand acutely.

“There is never enough,” one man says quietly. He relies on the generosity of charities and friends in – often only marginally – better situations than his. “I feel ashamed because I want to support myself but I can’t.”

Bridging visa holders say they are vulnerable to exploitation. A three-bedroom apartment the Guardian visits has six BVE holders living in it. Paint peels from the walls and the security screens lean dispiritingly from the windows but its residents are happy to have this place. Houses, they say, are hard to find. With no references or rent history, applications from bridging visa holders “go to the bottom of the pile”, even if they have the backing of a community organisation or a charity.

The men who live here feel their hold on their home is precarious. They say if they are a single day late with their rent they are charged penalties that have run into the hundreds of dollars or risk eviction – yet they see themselves as fortunate.

Hundreds of bridging visa holders sleep rough or couchsurf, prevailing as long as they can on friends and other BVE holders momentarily more fortunate. It happens at this flat. “There are only three people supposed to be here but many many more stay,” one asylum seeker says. “All the time, extra people.”

At another household, asylum seekers say they were sold white goods on credit with huge interest repayments they didn’t properly understand. The repayments continue still, even though the washing machine they bought has long since stopped working. They don’t have the money to fix it.

The Rev Dr John Jegasothy, a former Tamil refugee and now an Australian citizen, says life on a bridging visa is enforced penury and a poverty made worse because of its interminable nature. People spend years eking out an existence, Jegasothy says, wasting the best working and studying years of their lives, not knowing whether they’ll suddenly be deported, finally granted a visa, or simply held longer still in the fraught limbo of the bridging visa loop.

“They are treated as second-class people,”Jegasothy says. “They don’t know what will happen to them and they suffer in silence, because they are invisible to the rest of Australia.”

For those with children, the privations of the bridging visa regime are compounded.

Haleema, an Afghan Hazara, fled to Australia with her family in 2012 after years as a refugee in Iran where she faced constant threat of arrest, persecution and deportation, and where her two sons could not go to school.

She said her only thoughts of Australia were of finding a safe home for her sons. “We thought if we go somewhere else we can be safe but our life is the same as before when we were in Iran: we live in constant fear.

“I can’t sleep at night. I don’t know what happen in the future, if we will be sent back or stay here.”

Haleema told the Guardian her children suffered because of the financial strictures of life on a bridging visa. “Most of my money go to rent. I have only $100 left [each week] and it’s not enough,” she says.

“I sometimes can’t buy milk and bread for the house. I can’t buy fruit. I just buy second-hand fruit, the rotten ones [that] no one buy. If I buy rice, I can’t buy bread.

“Most of the time I give potato to my children. I can’t buy anything else. I can’t buy shoes and uniforms for my children going to school.”

On the Newtown doorstep of Sydney’s Asylum Seeker Centre, about 35 new people arrive every week, seeking all manner of assistance: from the immediate – urgent medical attention, a roof over their heads and a bed for the night, food or clothing – to the progressive – help with the labyrinthine visa application process, legal advice, aid finding work or a home to lease.

Sixty per cent of those who present at the centre are homeless or “at risk” of becoming homeless. “Some may have spent a night outdoors, in a hostel, or a whole family may have been living in one room,” says the centre’s chief executive, Frances Rush. “But when their money runs out they have no alternative but to seek help and so they come to charities such as the centre.

“Our immediate priority is to make sure they have somewhere to sleep that night, food to eat and provide them with urgent medical care if needed. Once we have them in a stable situation, we can then assess what their longer term needs are.”

The first days on a bridging visa are often the most difficult, Rush says. About 60% of those assisted by the centre are not boat arrivals but came by plane to Australia.

“Many have suffered horrendous experiences which forced them to flee for their safety. They have had to leave their whole identity behind: their culture, family, friends and work or career. On top of this they have had to endure the physical journey which in itself can be very traumatic and dangerous.

“So while they may feel safe when they arrive, applying for protection and getting back on their feet in a strange land is also a long and complicated process.”

The Guardian put a series of questions to the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and its minister asking about the number of BVE holders, their circumstances and the conditions applied to them. Both refused to answer in detail. The minister’s office provided a statement:

Labor’s border failures allowed more than 50,000 illegal maritime arrivals to flood into Australia over six years, which placed unprecedented pressure on the system. Labor’s ‘no advantage’ policy introduced in 2012 effectively froze illegal maritime arrival processing. Labor’s mess – the legacy caseload of 30,000 unprocessed illegal arrivals – was left to the Coalition government to deal with.

More than 23,000 bridging visas were granted in 2015, most with no restrictions on work. BVE holders generally have access to Medicare. Labor further compounded processing of the illegal maritime arrival caseload by opposing legislation for temporary protection visas (TPVs) and safe haven enterprise visas (Shevs) until the end of 2014. Processing could only begin mid last year – several thousand applications for TPVs and SHEVs are now being processed.

Dutton has said the “legacy caseload” could take a decade to process.

Other organisations are concerned less with which party is in power but with the manifestation of the bridging visa regime itself.

The UN high commissioner for refugees found, in a report three years ago, that those on bridging visas without work rights in Australia “are unable to meet their basic needs and are living in a state of destitution”.

Bridging visa holders had poor housing and went without essential items such as beds or refrigerators: “An income below the poverty line has led to an overwhelming reliance on community organisations for food, clothing and furniture. Being reliant on income support and not being permitted to work is, for many, felt as shameful and demoralising.

“The lives of asylum seekers in the community are largely characterised by uncertainty about their futures and the processing of their claims, and the impact of constant policy changes.”

This year Gillian Triggs, the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission, said the holding of people for years on a succession of bridging visas was “a very significant breach of basic human rights”.

“Really, [it is] a failure to respect their right to claim the status of a refugee,” she said. “It’s easy to demean people who don’t yet have that status and we hold them … for many many years without having determined their position.”

Unable to sleep, Farid calls his family overseas
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Unable to sleep, Farid calls his family overseas. He is comforted by hearing his elderly mother’s voice but feels sad when she asks: ‘When will you come home to see me?’ Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

In a weather-beaten house in a quiet suburb of western Sydney, five men sit in silence. Dark brown curtains veil the three large windows, and a television, coated in thick dust, is switched off in a corner. No one speaks. One man, his face lit by the glow of his phone, stares at the screen in front of him. The others sit in silence, one holding his head in his hands.

From the kitchen, the quiet clank of cooking can be heard. It is the turn of Farid, a lean man of quick, precise movements, to prepare their meal. Into the silence of the main room he walks, carrying a pot and the smell of lamb and spices fills the air.

“Ready,” he says, placing the pot on a mat in the middle of the floor, following this with an immediate apology. He says he meant to cook curry: it turned into shurba, an Afghan soup, because his mind was elsewhere and he poured in too much water.

“This is what happens, when your family is not here, your mind is everywhere.” The others burst into the laughter of immediate forgiveness. Their silence broken, they creep forward to sit cross-legged before the food. They begin to eat and, finally, to speak.

Farid has eyes that stare from deep within their sockets. He speaks reluctantly and uncertainly. He has been displaced from his homeland for more years than he can easily remember.

An Afghan, he lived for years as a refugee in Iran, where he was harassed and beaten by authorities because of his “illegal” status. He was regularly arrested and deported back to Afghanistan – at that time under the control of the Taliban – before he would be forced to flee again. Finally he sought somewhere more permanent: sanctuary in Australia.

But life in Australia has not brought stability. After years on a bridging visa he is still waiting to know whether he will be accepted as a refugee. His mother is elderly and she has fallen ill, but he says he cannot visit her: she is in a country he is not a citizen of nor permitted to enter. And a bridging visa does not allow a person to leave Australia and return.

Four Hazara asylum seekers sit down to a meal of qabuli palaw with fresh Afghan bread
Four Hazara asylum seekers sit down to a meal of qabuli palaw with fresh Afghan bread. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

“My mother is crying over the phone, ‘Please come to see me. I want to see my son one last time.’”

Reza is an ethnic Hazara who fled central Afghanistan for Australia in 2012. He arrived by boat in September, just after the 13 August cut-off that re-established offshore processing. He was sent to Nauru, where he spent 15 months in detention, before landing in Sydney on a bridging visa over two years ago.

The 31-year-old fled Afghanistan after surviving a bomb blast in Kabul. He lifts his trouser leg to reveal a long, jagged scar on his left ankle. His only child, a son, was two when he left. The boy is now six. Reza says he never imagined he would not see him for four years.

He pulls a phone from his shirt pocket and flicks through the images of the boy on its screen, his face briefly lighting up at seeing his son’s smiling face.

“I miss him so much. I want to hug him but … how hard this is.” Reza wipes a tear from his eye and puts the phone away.

“Everything in life has a phase,” he says, gazing at the floor. “I’ve missed a big part of my son’s childhood. I miss his smile. I miss his playfulness. I missed how much he grew in four years.

“The joy of raising a child is when they are little; you play with him. When he grows up he will find his own way in the world.”

Those living in Australia on bridging visas say they feel trapped in a cycle of temporary solutions, with no prospect of seeing family members again or being able to sponsor their relatives to Australia.

Zaman has not seen his wife and son for four years. He worries his son will not recognise him if he ever sees him again. And he doesn’t know what relationship they could have after so long apart. “For how long, we wait? For how long, be uncertain?

“There is nothing more comfort than having your family besides you,” he says. “If we were not desperate, I would not come this way [by boat]. It’s very dangerous and it required a lot of courage.”

Compounding the concerns of many about their separation is fear for the safety of their families. Many of the Hazara in Australia have family still living in volatile parts of Afghanistan, where the Taliban are dangerously resurgent. Last year was the deadliest year for the Hazara minority in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.

Asylum seekers from that country monitor local media obsessively and say they are alarmed by regular reports of Hazara being dragged from buses at roadblocks and put to death at the side of the road. In November seven Hazaras were killed on a roadside in southern Afghanistan, including a seven-year-old girl whose throat was slit by wire.

“I also have a seven-year-old daughter,” Rauf tells the Guardian. He comes from Damurda in Ghazni, the same village as those slain. “I wonder, ‘If they can’t spare a child, how could they spare anyone?’”

The situation is similarly chaotic along Pakistan’s north-western frontier. Thousands of Hazara, exiled from Afghanistan, live in two fortified suburbs in Quetta, where the ethnic minority is regularly targeted by bomb attacks.

An Iranian asylum seeker living in Melbourne with her child, who was born in Australia
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An Iranian asylum seeker living in Melbourne with her child, who was born in Australia. The mother has been suffering trauma as a result of her boat journey to Australia and her uncertain situation on a bridging visa. A psychologist has diagnosed her as having post-traumatic stress disorder. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

One Hazara asylum seeker in Sydney, who declines to give his name, says he is so worried about his children going to school in Quetta that he calls twice a day; once in the morning before they leave for class and again every evening to know they have returned safely.

Dawood worked as an interpreter for a foreign non-governmental organisation in Afghanistan. His involvement with “the west” attracted the attention of the Taliban and they threatened to kill him. He arrived in Australia in June 2012 – two months before the 13 August cut-off.

He was in Wickham Point detention centre near Darwin when the new “no advantage” rule came in. He says he remembers an immigration department representative that day announcing to about 400 asylum seekers: “The new law does not apply to you. No matter what happens to the government, you will be given a permanent visa.”

Four years after he arrived in Australia, and two and a half years since his interview to determine his refugee status, Dawood has had no news on his visa. “Usually it takes about six months or a year to get an answer, they accept you or not. I have been waiting two and a half years, for no answer.

“I believe a great injustice was done to me. They lied to us.”

Dawood’s daughter was three months old when he left Kabul. He speaks to her on the phone almost every day. She has been asking if he will come home next month for her fifth birthday.

“I lied to her, I said I will come,” he says, rubbing his unshaven chin. “That’s what happens now, I am lying to my family all these years. My wife is crying over the phone and asking me, ‘When you come, when you come?’ I say, come next month, come next season or come next year – but four and a half years passed like that.

“You know, you can’t lie to your child, she is little. I want to be besides her, to celebrate her birthday like every other father,” he says, choking back tears. “What I am going to do? They keep us in this situation.”

When Dawood arrived, asylum seekers whose claims for refugee status were upheld were granted permanent protection visas, entitling holders to be reunited with their families.

But after his case had been stagnant for two and a half years a legislative change pushed through parliament with the support of the crossbench in December 2014 reinstated temporary protection visas and created safe haven enterprise visas.

If Dawood’s claim for protection is ultimately accepted – that is, if Australia agrees he has a well-founded fear of persecution in his homeland and cannot be returned there – he will have a visa for another three or five years but with no right to be reunited with his family. He does not know when he will see his wife and daughter again. He does not know if he ever will.

“I will miss many more birthdays.”

Nothing moves outside the Yongah Hill detention centre. Only the heat shimmering across the scrubby land breaks the stillness. Even inside the centre, secreted in bushland 90km north-east of Perth, people seemed compelled to a timid inaction.

In the visitors’ room, conversations are conducted in hushed tones, barely above a whisper. Friends, partners and advocates sit with detainees, leaning their heads close to listen. Through a double-glazed window in an adjacent room, a sullen security guard in khaki watches over all.

On the wall hangs a picture: a crude drawing of a heart, with two arrows through it. The caption is strangely incongruous: “My heart is opening wider. Love people being around me.”

On the wall opposite, a poster bears the logo of Australian Human Rights Commission. In several languages, including English, it reads: “People should be treated fairly in immigration detention centres.”

Ali, a 19-year-old Hazara asylum seeker, prays in his home in western Sydney
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Ali, a 19-year-old Hazara asylum seeker, prays in his home in western Sydney. He finished high school last year but can’t afford to the fees to study as an international student at university or Tafe. Before coming to Australia, he lived as a refugee in Iran where he had no right to education. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

Sarwar is one of those in this immigration detention centre. He says he has not been treated fairly.

The 37-year-old Sri Lankan Muslim arrived in Australia by boat in 2012, fleeing the sectarian violence that continues to benight the country. After a brief period in detention, Sarwar was released into the community in 2013 on a bridging visa.

But now, back in detention, he holds in his hands his file – the frayed, fat paper trail that everybody caught within Australia’s immigration system accumulates.

Sarwar is anxious to show one piece of paper in particular: a report from a doctor that reads: “This man is in significant distress due to his visa not being approved for two years.”

The next paper he proffers demonstrates why he is here, in Yongah Hill detention centre, with no prospect of release. His file says he is being detained for “public threat to suicide; security issue and suicidal threats; working illegally as a farmer”. According to an incident report: “He called immigration to threaten to kill himself.”

No charges have been laid against Sarwar, nor will there be. According to his file there is no investigation ongoing into his actions. Still he remains in detention. He denies any wrongdoing. “I am a Muslim, I never do the wrong thing. Do not like illegal money.”

He says he only told the immigration department when he called: “For two days, I drink only water. I am starving, better kill myself.”

“I have no money, no work rights,” he says.

Sarwar tells the Guardian he has two daughters and a son in Sri Lanka. “No money, they starve, they no go to school.”

Through tears, he says he has been detained for eight months already, while indefinite detention stretches out before him. ‘‘I want somebody to help me … for this small thing, they brought me here. Eight months now. They don’t have a heart.”

“I pray for Allah all the time,” he says, palms raised towards the ceiling. “I am not a terrorist or al-Qaida.”

Sarwar has been detained because he is judged to have breached the immigration department’s “code of behaviour”, mandated for all bridging visa holders in December 2013, and which restricts their behaviour, over and above the laws of the land.

The indeterminate prohibitions of the code include a ban on “antisocial activities”; anything from spitting to swearing or “being disruptive”.

Asylum seekers are told they can be found in breach of the code by failing to carry a bus or a train ticket. There is no need for any offence to result in an arrest, charge or conviction, or for any alleged act to meet any standard of proof.

“If you are found to have breached the code of behaviour, you could have your income support reduced, or your visa may be cancelled,” the code says. “If your visa is cancelled, you will be returned to immigration detention and may be transferred to an offshore processing centre.”

Scott Cosgriff, from the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, says the code has created a “very unfair process” for asylum seekers. “It allows the minister to cancel a visa for a very, very minor thing. Under this code, an asylum seeker can be redetained even if the charge is dropped or the original accusation is unfounded – people can still remain in detention.”

The code is the asylum seeker’s sword of Damocles: BVE holders are acutely aware of its conditions and the breadth with which they can be interpreted.

More than one of the asylum seekers the Guardian spoke to carries a copy of the code with them, unfolding it, worn with age and repeated rereadings, from a pocket or wallet.

For Ali Sadaat, it was the code, and a beer, that cost him his liberty. Sadaat fled Iran as a 17-year-old, arriving in Australia by boat in November 2011. He was granted a bridging visa and attended school in Sydney as he waited for his claim for refugee status to be assessed.

In late 2013 Sadaat was on a train when he was stopped by police for carrying an open beer bottle. He was fined $700 and given a nine-month good behaviour bond for the offence.

But in addition to the criminal justice system’s punishment, Sadaat was also redetained by the immigration department for breaching the code of behaviour and held, first at Villawood, then in Darwin, and then on Christmas Island.

He has been imprisoned more than two years, “a punishment”, says Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition, “out of all proportion to any offence he may have committed on the train”.

“Being redetained has not only robbed Ali of more than two years of his life; it has robbed him of hope and his mental health.”

In December Sadaat went on hunger strike in protest at the inaction over his case. Before friends and advocates convinced him to abandon his protest, he wrote: “This will result in either costing my life or getting my freedom. I don’t want to be without freedom. Pray for me. This is real. I can’t see light at the end of the tunnel.”

Sadaat remains in detention.

On a weeknight in Sydney, the Guardian meets one asylum seeker, Akash, who fled civil war in his country. He was never a fighter, he says, but carries the scars of war.

In his teens, a bomb exploded near him, amputating his foot. He had a prosthetic fitted in his home country and says he arrived in Australia anxious to prove he could, and was willing, to work. Not being able to, he says, “is the biggest thing for me”.

“We want to go out and work but what else can we do? That pressure of being unemployed is too much.”

His bridging visas have come sometimes with, and sometimes without, work rights. It has made little difference, he says, because of the temporary nature of his visa.

“Why would a business employ us if we might be gone after three months? They will just employ an Australian or someone with PR [permanent residency]. I have had employers say to me, ‘I want to employ you but you are BVE, you might be gone soon. I have to employ someone else for the good of my business.’”

Teenage asylum seekers play football in Granville Park, in western Sydney.
Teenage asylum seekers play football in Granville Park, western Sydney. Away from their families, they form tight-knit friendships and bond through sport. Some dream of playing professionally. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

Akash says he feels stuck in Australia. “We cannot go back to our country, we are not safe there. We cannot work, we cannot start our life here. We must live under this tension.

“We just want to not have this fear, the fear of being deported, a fear things will be worse for us than when we left, that we will not be able to escape again, and we will be stuck there.”

Frances Rush from the Asylum Seeker Centre says the weeks and years spent on rolling BVEs are further damaging to people’s mental health. They are isolated and often lonely, without family or traditional support networks. But the inability to work is, for many, one of the most acute frustrations.

“It is extremely important for them to be able to work,” Rush says. “They want to work, they do not want to have to rely on charity. It is also an important part of their personal identity and provides them with self-esteem.

“Many are highly qualified professional people and others have run extremely successful businesses in their home countries. They simply need some initial support to re-enter the workforce.”

Without work rights, asylum seekers rely on government welfare, which, for most, is 89% of the Newstart allowance (now $523.40 a fortnight for a single person – 89% is $465.83). Some asylum seekers receive a fraction of this, some receive no government support at all.

So asylum seekers turn to friends, others from their ethnic community, or to charity. Every asylum seeker the Guardian spoke to reported relying on donations of food, clothing or money.

Some risk taking a job on the black market, working cash-in-hand on cheaper rates. They realise they are vulnerable to exploitation and the ever-present threat of the phone call to the department that could end not only their employment but their liberty.

Fereshte, an Iranian woman who arrived – with her husband and two children – in Australia by boat in July 2013, says their futures had been cruelled by being forbidden from working.

“We came to this country in the hope that somebody [would] help us,” Fereshte says. “But we don’t know what’s going to happen to us.

“I feel like useless when I go out. We can’t work. I had a friend who worked and he was caught. He is now in detention.”

Even those with work rights find themselves excluded from the mainstream job market. Without strong English, a local education or qualification, references or a résumé, the work they find is at the fringes.

They say they are often underpaid, asked to perform dangerous tasks without adequate equipment, or forced to work overtime for no extra money.

“For a long time I did not have work rights,” one asylum seeker says. “I just recently got a job working in a shop packing fruits and vegetables. I wake up about about 4am and work until 6pm.”

He holds up his hands to show the cracks running across his palms and fingers. “They give me $8 per hour. I know it’s very low. If had known English, you think I would work $8 an hour?

“It is maybe against the Australian law but I am compelled to work because I could not find any other job. I am compelled to work to support my family overseas.”

Employment, when it is found, is often precarious, with no access to sick or annual leave. “I can’t get a permanent job,” says Nowrooz, an asylum seeker who works as a bricklayer in Sydney. His boss wants to take him on as permanently but can’t.

“My employer tells me when I bring my permanent visa then he can give me a permanent job.”

Asylum seekers on bridging visas at an English language class run by Human Care Welfare.
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Asylum seekers on bridging visas at an English language class run by Human Care Welfare. The lessons run for an hour, several evenings a week. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

“Febrat,” he says. The man with the rusty teeth struggles over the word on the whiteboard, one of a handful the teacher has written for the class. The word he is trying to say is “favourite” but, despite his pained efforts, it remains elusive, just beyond the reach of his tongue and those teeth. “Febrat,” he says again, before correcting himself: “February?”

The teacher, a volunteer of Indian origin, moves on. He asks his students for the meaning of two more words on the board: “beef” and “pork”. No one answers but there is a nodding of heads. Another student raises his hand to say that he knows but can’t say.

He sticks two fingers behind his ears and puffs out his cheeks, dropping into a crouch. This means pork. His classmates burst into laughter and the lesson comes to an unexpected end.

This is an English class in the Sydney suburb of Auburn, run by volunteers for migrants to Australia. About 15 students, including several children, are huddled in the hot classroom.

The class has been put on by Human Care Welfare, an organisation founded by Hassan Rezayee, a refugee who arrived in Australia by boat in 1999 and who now seeks to help newly arrived migrants with English lessons, computer classes, even driving knowledge tests.

Rezayee started these classes in 2012 when he saw refugees and migrants living their lives sequestered in the same suburbs as their compatriots, unable or unwilling to leave the surrounds of their language group.

“Nobody understands their pains,” he says. “Nobody listens to their problems, let alone solve them. I started this English classes because I know what it’s like to live without speaking English in this country. I went through the same experience when I was on a temporary protection visa during [the government of] John Howard.

“I learned English the hard way and now I want to help these people. I want to give back something to the community, I want to show a positive image of a refugee.”

In 2012 Rezayee started with 12 students. Now he has 300. About 80, he says, are asylum seekers on bridging visas.

The students here today are the keen ones but it is a struggle. Asylum seekers on bridging visas do not have access to the 510 hours of free English classes provided to other refugees or migrants on permanent visas.

Even after years in Australia, many have limited English and struggle with basic conversation. For many it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle of isolation.

Their struggles drive them deeper into the bosom of their own ethnic and linguistic communities, increasing their segregation from mainstream Australia and further cutting them off from exposure to English.

But the asylum seeker cohort is young and the years spent waiting on bridging visas are, for many, the most critical years for education. About 7,000 of the nearly 30,000 people living in the Australian community waiting for a decision on their claim to refugee status are aged between 16 and 25.

Children under 18 on bridging visas are able to attend school and this cohort’s admission to education has been, in many cases, successful. Scores have graduated from high schools, though some have been prevented from finishing, including Mojgan Shamsalipoor, who was without warning taken from her high school in Brisbane into immigration detention in Darwin only weeks before her year 12 exams last year. She ultimately graduated, receiving her year 12 certificate in detention, while her husband – who is an Australian permanent resident – continues to campaign for her release.

Another asylum seeker, Shams, had an even more abbreviated schooling: a single week of high school in Australia. A Hazara from central Afghanistan and a boat arrival to Australia, Shams was released from Christmas Island detention centre three years ago and enrolled immediately in a local high school in South Australia.

He says he was excited to be able to openly attend school, free from the fear of shelling or having acid thrown in his face by the insurgents of his homeland who opposed secular education.

But in the same week he turned 18 and was told he could no longer attend classes. “I was very disappointed. I went home and cried for many days. I had no work rights, no study rights. I sat all day at home either thinking or crying. Nothing to do.”

Beyond school, there are few educational opportunities. While refugees on permanent visas can access government education programs such as Fee-Help, asylum seekers on bridging visas are shut out.

Adult asylum seekers who wish to continue their education must enrol as international fee-paying students to study at Tafe (tertiary and further education) colleges or university, a financial impost far beyond almost all.

Now 20, Shams lives with five other asylum seekers in western Sydney, still waiting for a resolution of his claim seeking refugee status.

Three months ago he was granted work rights for the first time but with his poor level of English and no qualification he has been unable to find a job. “If they allowed me to study, I would at least improve my English. I would be a useful member of this society. Am I any use now?

“I lost three years of my life. I could have finished a degree if I was allowed to study.”

Another young asylum seeker, Hadi, fled Pakistan in 2012 after a Taliban-affiliated terrorist group attacked his school bus, killing several of his classmates. Fearing further attacks if he stayed in school, his family sent him to Australia. He graduated last year from an Australian high school with an Australian tertiary admission rank of 70. But now, he says, there is nowhere for him to go.

“I was not able to continue education back in Pakistan because the Taliban was against education and they killed my classmates. Here, I can’t study either because the [Australian] government does not want [me to]. To stop a person from studying, this is what a Talib does. There is no difference.”

At school, Hadi had started his writing about his journey to Australia but, with the cessation of his education, his desire to record his story has dissipated. With no prospect of going to university or a Tafe college, he has taken a job collecting scrap metal.

In a report released last December, the Refugee Council of Australia recommended that the government improve access for asylum seekers to public education, including commonwealth-funded places for tertiary study. A handful of universities provide scholarships for asylum seekers but the council has asked for more opportunities.

“Young people seeking asylum have constantly expressed their keen desire to undertake further education in order to contribute to Australia,” says Paul Power, the refugee council’s chief executive. “These people face significant barriers to tertiary education which will effectively prevent most people on these visas from pursuing further study, in turn diminishing their employment prospects and undermining positive settlement outcomes.”

Rahmat is a 22-year-old Hazara who fled the roiling conflict in Afghanistan for a life in Australia. His education finished then too.

The Taliban control the roads to the Hazarajat region of Afghanistan and, at their unofficial “checkpoints”, they stop vehicles and search them for Hazaras, distinguished by the Asiatic features that set them apart from the country’s Pashtun majority. Regularly, Hazaras are dragged from buses and trucks, and slaughtered by the roadside. “I stopped going to school in Afghanistan because the roads were too dangerous,” Rahmat says. “Then I had to leave.”

Rahmat wants to study film but cannot afford the fees. Previously, he borrowed money to enrol in a business administration course at Tafe. Though he passed with good marks, he can’t afford to study any longer. Instead he works as a tiler whenever he gets the chance.

“I knocked on every door in Melbourne. I went to Tafe, I went to many universities. They told me I have to pay. I say, ‘How am I going to pay? I just got the right to work three months ago.’ I would love to continue my education if there is any opportunity.”

Ramish, a five-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who has lived on a bridging visa almost half of his lifetime – since July 2013 – with another sibling and a single parent in Melbourne. Ramish’s father has just been given work rights but with nobody to care for his children – as an asylum seeker he is not eligible for childcare – he can’t search for a job. The family live in grinding poverty
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Ramish, a five-year-old Iranian asylum seeker who has lived on a bridging visa almost half of his lifetime – since July 2013 – with another sibling and a single parent in Melbourne. Ramish’s father has just been given work rights but with nobody to care for his children – as an asylum seeker he is not eligible for childcare – he can’t search for a job. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

There is a circularity to conversations with bridging visa holders, an unanswerable but omnipresent question: what next?

Many of those on bridging visas have “no pathway” to a permanent visa, as it is described in departmental jargon.

As they wait for letters inviting them to apply for the re-instituted temporary protection visa or the newly created safe haven enterprise visa (Shev), they agonise about which they might seek. Both are temporary: the TPV is valid for three years, the Shev for five, but the latter carries strict prerequisites for qualifications, language abilities and a requirement that holders live in regional areas.

Even at the Shev’s instigation, these were considered near-impossible criteria to meet by the immigration minister who announced them, Scott Morrison. “This is a very high bar to clear,” he said in September 2014. “Good luck to them if they choose to do that and if they achieve it.”

After several years in Australia, Hamid’s claim to refugee status has been accepted. Australia, the immigration department has ruled, has a legal obligation to protect him and cannot send him to back to his home country where he has a “well-founded fear” of persecution.

He has received a letter inviting him to apply for a TPV or a Shev but cannot decide which one to submit. He has 28 days to choose but it feels to him no choice at all.

Both are temporary solutions – one three years, the other five – and neither allows him to sponsor his family to travel to see him, or to leave Australia to visit them. “I was hopeful one year ago [when the law was changed]. Now, I become disappointed.

“There is nothing to wait for. No waiting. It’s like a person standing a bus stop, waiting for a bus where there is not a bus at the end of line. I am confused which one to choose.”

Maybe tonight, he says, he will make his decision: “I should go to a fortune teller to tell me which is one better.”

Even those invited to apply for a visa often find themselves no closer to a resolution. Refugee advocates have told the Guardian that while more than 2,000 asylum seekers have applied for Shevs, only about 20 of the visas have been granted. More than 1,400 applications for TPVs are similarly stalled within the bureaucracy. For many there appears no end to the ceaseless uncertainty of temporary solutions.

Several BVE holders say they have been immensely frustrated by their efforts to get any sense of what their future holds. They say they feel stuck in the shifting sands of the immigration department’s inconsistency: by constant minor changes to policies, significant enough only to hold up a claim; or by high staff turnover causing their files to be constantly forwarded to a new person.

Some have waited through to almost the very end of the process of being granted a substantive visa, only for a change of government, or a restructured policy, to send them back to the beginning again.

A Tamil asylum seeker says, on condition of anonymity, that he has been consistently re-interviewed – asked the same questions over and over again – about his claim for protection.

“Every time we go to a meeting we get asked the same questions about why we came. They are trying to make us trip up and make a mistake. Every time we go they ask, ‘Why did you come?’

“It sounds to us like they are saying, ‘You should not have come.’ They are accusing us of the wrong thing. But we had to come, we had no choice, our lives were in danger. We had to flee. They know that but still they ask us.”

He says he is asked to provide identity documents from the government that imprisoned him and tortured him. He says he has explained “too many times” that he did not have the documents when he lived in Sri Lanka – and he can’t possibly get them now from the authorities that persecuted him.

Still, he says, he reports to every meeting with the immigration department 45 minutes early. To every meeting, he wears the one business shirt he and his housemates all share, “to look respectful”. He wants to do everything right, he says, because “the fear of being deported is very real”.

“Sometimes people vanish, they are just gone. And then we hear they are back in their country. We are scared to go and meet the government. We are scared they will take us and deport us. We know that has happened to people we know. People go for a meeting with the department and they just never come back.

“The fear is very strong. Every day we worry.”

The stories of Dawood and Shams and Sadaat may lack the catastrophic drama of the boat arrivals of years previous, or the brutal, ongoing horror of detention in the offshore camps of Nauru and Manus Island.

These people are, by contrast, the fortunate. They live on the mainland of Australia, able to walk the streets, apparently free.

But these are lives being steadily eroded, worn down by the weight of cumulative oppressions.

These are people who have escaped torture, imprisonment, or war, only to be confronted by circumstances that stifle their chances of a better life. They are trapped in a system that won’t – can’t – care. And they are here, among us, hidden in plain sight.

Source: ‘We are the forgotten people’: the anguish of Australia’s ‘invisible’ asylum seekers

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