8 December 2023

Refugee women walk from Melbourne to Canberra for freedom, permanent visas

Twenty-two women refugees are walking from Melbourne to Canberra for freedom. Picture: supplied.

Jenan Taylor

25 September 2023

A group of refugee women is calling on the federal government for permanent visas for all refugees as they walk from Canberra to Melbourne.  

Twenty-two Tamil and Iranian mothers, aged care workers, painters, cleaners, beauticians and hairdressers embarked on their 650-kilometre walk for compassionate refugee policies on Friday.

The walkers, the Refugee Women Action for Visa Equality, are also asking for work and study rights for all refugees, permanent settlement in Australia for all those from the processing centres in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and the repeal of Operation Sovereign Borders with its fast track determination system.

The Albanese government announced a permanent visa pathway for refugees on temporary protection and safe haven enterprise visas in February.

But the women, who are on temporary, bridging and expired visas, are among 10,000 refugees who were left out of the policy announcement.

It comes as Neil Para, a Sri Lankan refugee who was also among the excluded cohort, was recently granted permanent residency after walking from Ballarat to Sydney, drawing attention to his plight.

Group member Rathi Barthlote said the women decided to embark on the walk because they had become overwhelmed by the anxiety and fear of living with uncertainty about their future, and wanted the government to understand what they were going through.

Read more: Visa uncertainty ends for thousands of refugees, but many still stuck in limbo

Ms Barthlote fled Sri Lanka in 2006 because of the civil war and came to Australia via India in 2013.  

She said she had waited since then for a permanent residency visa.

A carer and a hairdresser, Ms Barthlote said being in limbo meant she had not seen her mother for 18 years, and was not allowed to go back when family members died.

She said among the walkers were mothers with children who had never met their grandparents, and whose children would not be allowed to go on to higher education.

Ms Barthlote said among them were also two students who worked hard to pay for their studies. One was studying medicine but dropped out after a few years because she had no way of being able to pay the fees.

Refugee Advocacy Network convenor Marie Hapke said life for many asylum seekers who arrived by sea in the lead up to mid-2013, became one of uncertainty, particularly when the Abbott government came to power and placed a stay on processing their claims.

She said that was the cohort who was now, 10 years later, still waiting in limbo.

Ms Hapke said the fast track determination process introduced by the Abbott government, was particularly challenging for refugees.

Its many hurdles included an onerous English language requirement, and vastly diminished opportunity for refugees to have their cases meaningfully reviewed.  

Ms Hapke said it would be hard for refugees, such as the women doing the walk, to sustain hope over an extended period of time, especially if there were few or no prospects at the end.

She said among the walkers, there were likely to be women whose experiences had affected their mental condition.  That could potentially affect the wellbeing of the rest of their family, too.

“If your mental health drops off, then it would affect work capacity. They’re not eligible for any Centrelink support, either,” Ms Hapke said.

Read more: Churches uniquely suited to help support refugees and asylum seekers

Former aged care worker Mohana who has waited 10 years for permanent residency status, is among the women.

Mohana recently shared with The Melbourne Anglican her fear of what could happen without a permanent resolution visa.  

In a Facebook video post on day three of the women’s freedom walk, Mohana told of her anguish leaving her children, one of whom was celebrating his birthday, to do the walk to achieve her goals of security for her family.

Ms Barthlote said the walkers were covering 35 kilometres a day, and expected to get to Parliament House in Canberra on 18 October.

She said they were able to get accommodation for the first two nights of their journey at Christ Church Anglican Kilmore, and Seymour Baptist church.

A spokesperson for the department of home affairs said the government was focused on providing those who engaged Australia’s protection obligations a chance to continue their lives in Australia with certainty and security.

They said each protection case was assessed on its merits, taking into account the individual circumstances of the case and the most current and relevant country of origin information.

To follow the women’s progress over the next month, and to support them, see here.

Ms Hapke urged Christians who wanted to support the efforts of the group, as well as other refugees to write to politicians here.

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