The injustice dished out to refugee families

12th October 2017

By Andrew Hamilton SJ

Families divided across the globe have often been an unconsidered side effect of Australia’s refugee policy. When Australia welcomes refugees and people seeking asylum generously, there can still be a long delay in being reunited with family members overseas. When the attitude to refugees turns mean, people can wait for over a decade to see their immediate family again. Many people who have sought protection in Australia have been excluded altogether from family reunion programs.  

At present, the demand for family reunion places in the Special Humanitarian Program outstrips supply by a ratio of 7:1, creating a cruel yearly lottery for places. A number of organisations including Jesuit Social Services and the Refugee Council of Australia are calling on the government and opposition to introduce a needs-based, affordable family reunion stream as part of the Migration Program, with at least 5,000 places annually.

These are the bare numbers. They do not disclose the personal reality of what it is like to wait for many years to be reunited with your family. Where refugee men flee their own country under threat of death they think of their wives and children day and night, who have often been left behind in dangerous situations.  If they are reunited with them they will have longed for the day to come. But they may then discover that their children do not recognise them and are frightened of them, perhaps angry that they were seemingly forgotten during the years apart. The pain of separation can continue to mark their lives.

The effects of separation, too, affect people’s ability to settle into Australian society, so affecting both the happiness of the new arrivals and the contribution they could have made to their new world. People feel transient, with their hearts still with their families in the places they have left and all their attention on trying to enable them to come to Australia. They live in fear for their families: each passing aeroplane at night brings dreams of the bombers that harry their families, or of their missing family members who will not be travelling on this plane to join them in Australia.

 People instinctively feel for all those who are forcibly separated from their families. It is every family’s nightmare. So it is not surprising that in a recent Poll carried out by the Refugee Council and Jesuit Social Services 75% of respondents supported family reunion programs accompanied by appropriate background checks.  This is in sharp contrast to the much smaller numbers willing to welcome people who come to Australia to seek protection.

Australian governments have made much of policies that are family friendly. In practice they more often focus on the needs for economic growth through individuals, and so put pressure on family life. This has heavy costs for the stability of families, and particularly for vulnerable families. Of all families, refugee families are the most vulnerable, and particularly those in which wives and children live in fear and poverty in third world nations, separated from the father and husband on whom they rely. The separation costs them much in their personal lives and in the loss of opportunity to flourish as a family. It diminishes the great contribution, economic and social, that they could make to Australian society.

A refugee’s life is often a very difficult one. Cruel memories of persecution, the experience of being torn from the language and culture in which they were brought up, of adjusting to a new nation with its own culture, of the anguish and fear of dangerous travel and of waiting for decisions on which their whole life hangs are more traumatic than those most of us would bear in a lifetime. But the most acute pain is caused by the knife that slices through family relationships: the separation from spouses and children, the constant fear for their welfare and the guilt at leaving and being unable to help their family on arrival in Australia.

These are the deepest reality behind the statistics.