Australia: ‘I can’t go home’: Timorese turn to asylum, lost in Australia’s confusing visa system

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Hundreds of East Timorese temporary migrant workers are applying for asylum once in Australia under the mistaken belief that it’s an out from the “slave”-like conditions of their current visas. Most do not qualify for permanent protection, which leaves them stranded in Australia with no visa or work rights — a fast-track to unlawful status.

East Timorese workers board a bus during the NSW berry harvest in 2020 (Image: Dr Michael Rose/Supplied) © Provided by Crikey East Timorese workers board a bus during the NSW berry harvest in 2020 (Image: Dr Michael Rose/Supplied)

A Crikey investigation has revealed that desperation and false information are largely to blame.

‘I want to work, just not this job’

The East Timorese who come to Australia as part of the seasonal worker program (SWP) and Pacific labour scheme (PLS) — now under the umbrella (or shade) of the PALM (Pacific Australia Labour Mobility) program — serve a single employer for a fixed term. They do one job and one job only, and then go home. If they opt out early, they also go home. Once home, it can be difficult to return. The labour is mostly factory- or farm-based and not for the faint-hearted (aka Australians).

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“I really do feel like I work as a slave in another country,” Costa, a PLS worker turned protection-visa applicant, told Crikey. “So many times I say, ‘Can you please do me a favour? If there is another company, can I change? I want to work and work hard, just not here.’ But they say they cannot do that. And then I feel really stressed. I go to work in the morning, and I feel like I’m going to hell.”

The Department of Home Affairs said Costa is one of almost 500 East Timorese who have lodged a claim for permanent protection between July 1 2008 and June 30 2022. Over the past three years, the number of East Timorese on bridging visas has grown from 18 to 492, with a peak of 576 in September last year. There are 378 East Timorese currently on bridging visas awaiting the outcome of applications for permanent protection.

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The East Timorese account for a quarter of PALM workers absconding or lodging applications for protection, while the 500-odd in limbo make up almost a third of all Timorese temporary visa holders. It comes as Australia grapples with mass shortages of seasonal workers.

Why are so many Timorese attempting to jump ship?

First Secretary of the Timor-Leste embassy in Australia Samuel Soares is sympathetic: “This is not the intention of the workers; it is something they’ve been forced into.” He said poor economic conditions in Timor Leste, combined with slower-than-anticipated savings in PALM work-streams, the allure of earning more money elsewhere, a patchwork of he-said she-said between contractors, employers and workers, and the pressures of the pandemic, have all produced a perfect storm.

“They don’t really know what this visa means for them,” he said. “I ask them: ‘Why do you want to apply?’ They say: ‘When we arrived we were told we would gain some money. But after every reduction is made, we have almost nothing. We cannot go home because we have no money.’ This is the only way they can stay legally in Australia.”

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This was true for Costa. Her three-year PLS visa was tied to a meat-processing facility, but after one and a half years working in a chill room, her health deteriorated, and $3000 in hospital fees later, so too did her finances.

“I had to go to the hospital every week,” she said. “I make $400, sometimes $600 a week. It makes me very stressed because I have to pay accommodation and I have to pay the hospital, and I have to pay my family, and my food. It’s just not enough. I work so hard but it’s not enough.”

Costa tried to negotiate a new employer on health grounds, but the PLS advised her to return to Timor Leste. That meant going home with empty pockets: “All my money I used to pay for the hospital and my accommodation, so how can I leave? I said no, I can’t go home. I need to stay in Australia so I can make money and send it home to my family. They depend on me.”

Word-of-mouth work visa

The brutal reality is that a protection visa in Australia is neither a financial safety net nor a means to work. And yet many Timorese mistakenly believe it’s a work visa.

“The asylum visa was a way for me to work,” former PLS worker Atcha Soares said. “I tried to get another work visa, but it didn’t work so I applied for a protection visa.”

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Soares was a victim of a word-of-mouth, friends-of-friends network that falsely promoted protection as a pathway to a job: “I asked one of my friends living in Brisbane: ‘Do you know how to apply for another visa?’ He said I have one friend. And so I messaged him. He’s from Malaysia. I didn’t meet him — we just messaged online.”

It was a similar tale for Betty Da Silva Soares, yet another Timorese to leave the PLS hoping to secure work: “I had a friend that said: ‘How about you apply for the protection visa?’ He recommended because he already used this visa. I asked: ‘Have you had any trouble?’ And he said: ‘It’s OK. I use it and I work at another farm, and I have no problems.’”

Acting on the advice of someone she’d never met, Da Silva Soares forwarded the friend once removed all her identity documents. They then filled and filed the application on her behalf. The favour required no face time, but it came with a small fee of $150. Atcha Soares was charged $250.

A couple of hundred dollars seems innocent enough, but that’s just a starting figure. When applications are knocked back (and they are), the cost of enlisting help (often illegitimate) quickly piles up. The fees of visa liaison companies or contractors on the ground with promises of work can tally into the thousands.

Money matters aside, it leaves applicants unaware of what they’ve signed up for and what they’ve disclosed on their documents.

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Principal solicitor at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) Hannah Dickinson often sees cases of people unaware of the contents of their applications: “People may come to us at a late stage in the process and say: ‘I didn’t know they wrote this.’ Or they think they’re applying for a work visa when they’ve applied for a protection visa.”

Although the ASRC won’t represent non-meritorious claims, Dickinson does not blame the applicants. “It’s not ill-intention driving these claims,” she said, “They are getting their information from sources in the community who don’t provide proper advice.”

Suddenly you’re illegal

Once lodged, the process is a minefield to navigate. It’s easy to fall out of the process and become unlawful, especially when correspondence is managed by a third party. Email addresses set up by friends of friends filling in the forms are not monitored properly. They promise to keep tabs on the status of an application, but they don’t.

“Last time my visa was cancelled,” said Atcha Soares. “When it came through, I didn’t read what the rules were. I didn’t do the fingerprints so my visa cancelled automatically.”

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And then comes the appeals process. If an applicant doesn’t appeal in time, their bridging visa expires and suddenly they’re illegal. “They say I have to appeal to a tribunal. What is a tribunal? I don’t know,” Costa said. “I don’t know the law in Australia. It’s really tricky in Australia to apply for another visa. I’ve tried maybe three times, but I cannot get it.”

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Emails from immigration are misinterpreted, and many applicants believe they have been granted protection visas when they have not.

It is a waiting game compounded by chaos and confusion. Such delays are a key part of the business model of those who profit from desperate people.

Keeping up appearances

East Timorese applications for asylum are being knocked back at a rate of knots. Between July 1 2008 and June 30 2022, 300 applications were refused. This month alone, 71 permanent protection visas were rejected. Sometimes they are turned down immediately en masse, with groups of East Timorese lodging identical claims.

Home Affairs is notoriously slow to process protection visas, but quick to identify and eliminate “non-claims” from the queue.

Dickinson said country of origin was a key part of the application process: “We do see the department identifying non-meritorious claims based on country and fast-tracking them. People get siphoned through with far less scrupulous processes as a result.”

Last Wednesday the Timorese ambassador to Australia, Inês Maria de Almeida, told reporters in Timor Leste that too many East Timorese PALM workers were putting themselves through immigration.

“I’ve spoken to many Timorese over there [Australia] who have left the [PALM] system, [told them] that they’ve done the wrong thing, but now they’re in the Australian system. They’re in the database, so they have to follow the process, they must attend an interview when they are called, and accept [the terms of] the Australian system of applying for a protection visa, [which includes] being given a bridging visa that gives you the right to work while you are waiting for the results of the application,” she said in Tetun.

It is not without consequence. Three-year PLS worker Pedro Ley is deeply concerned about the reputation of the East Timorese: “There are many people in Timor who want to come and work in the program, but they haven’t had the chance yet. I always say I come here and work because I want to bring more Timorese here. They are making it harder for the rest of us. Our employers will be more careful when they go to recruit Timorese.”

Ley has seen many Timorese come and go. He said their reasons vary — PALM work is too hard, wages are too low, their time in Australia is too short. “I know some of them who regret their decisions to leave the PLS program and now they want to come back,” he said.

Keeping up appearances is a top priority for the Timor-Leste embassy. Samuel Soares was clear: “I tell them: ‘If you want to go home, make sure you clean up your profile in the Australian immigration centre. Be honest and show your good intention, because if you want to come back one day, that type of information is very useful for you.’ ”

The post ‘I can’t go home’: Timorese turn to asylum, lost in Australia’s confusing visa system appeared first on Crikey.

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