'Social time bomb': UNHCR's warning on the plight of 30,000 asylum seekers already living in Australia
Australia faces a "social time bomb" over the failure to process and integrate around 30,000 asylum seekers who are in the community on bridging visas after arriving by boat during the term of the former Labor government.
The warning comes from the United Nations refugee agency's most senior protection official, Volker Turk, who has urged the Turnbull government to process the so-called "legacy caseload" quickly, efficiently and fairly to avoid breaking those who should be afforded the chance to rebuild their lives.
"You need to make sure that people can get on with their lives," the Geneva-based Mr Turk told Fairfax Media after meeting with some of those on bridging visas during a visit to Australia. "It is very urgent to address this issue."
Only a fraction of the caseload have had primary decisions and mental health experts say uncertainty about their futures, access to education and employment and whether they will be returned to detention or their home countries, is contributing to high levels of anxiety and depression among those on bridging visas.
"It's a social time bomb if you don't address it, and it is something that is utterly avoidable," Mr Turk said during an expansive interview. "In any country in the world, if you have the resources, you can actually process cases in a fair and efficient procedure."
More than 10 asylum seekers on bridging visas have taken their lives in the last two years and it's alleged another, a Rohingyan man who arrived by boat in 2013, injured himself and 27 others in a Springvale bank when he set himself on fire last week.
"There are increasing reports of many people within the asylum-seeker community being at advanced stages of feeling mentally trapped, figuratively boxed in, especially hopeless and helpless," says Professor Nicholas Procter, of the University of South Australia.
"Whether the person's perspective is influenced by events in the recent or distant past, contemporary events in Australia or elsewhere, or any possible combination of these, the picture is one of lethal hopelessness."
In September, government officials told Fairfax Media that more than 7000 of the legacy caseload had received "primary assessments", and that more than 27,000 were in the community on bridging visas including 25,000 with work rights.
"The small number of IMAs (Illegal Maritime Arrivals) in detention are there for character, national security or behavioural concerns and not because their protection claims have not been assessed," the official said.
Mr Turk, the UNHCR's assistant high commissioner for protection, said the asylum seekers he had met on bridging visas struck him as people who would make "the greatest contributions to Australian society".
But he said prolonged periods of uncertainty had the potential to break people when "that is not what refugee protection is about - it's meant to restore people and give them a future."
Mr Turk has also expressed confidence that all of the asylum seekers who have been held on Nauru and Manus Island for more than three years will be settled elsewhere following the deal with the United States. While the majority would be resettled in the US, he said it was important "that other countries come in as well".
"We are really looking at finding a solution for everyone because people have been in a very difficult situation in detention for prolonged periods of time with massive impact on their health, especially on their mental health," Mr Turk said.
While the UNHCR did not usually assist in resettling asylum seekers from developed countries, it has agreed to administer the deal with the United States because of the "precarious" state of those on Manus Island and Nauru.
As Fairfax Media reported on Monday, the UNHCR has found that refugees and asylum seekers held on Manus Island are battling some of the highest rates of depressive and anxiety disorders recorded and this is overwhelmingly the result of their detention experience. The picture on Nauru was almost as bad.
Mr Turk said he anticipated those whose protection claims had been rejected would be reassessed, saying the circumstances of their detention and their mental state may have diminished the ability to present their case.
"We can't apply the usual approach in these circumstances, so we hope that a solution can be found for everyone given the impact that prolonged mandatory detention under these circumstances has had on these people."
While Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has been vague about the details, insisting no one will come to Australia, Mr Turk said the UNHCR would continue to press the case for those refugees with immediate family members in the Australian community to be settled here.
"Our ask has always been, and will continue to be, that Australia has to be part of the solution, (especially) for those with close family links in Australia. We will not give up on this."
The UNHCR is opposing the government's proposed lifetime ban of those who are resettled from Manus and Nauru ever being able to visit Australia, maintaining it is in breach of basic human rights and will not achieve the stated purpose of deterring people smuggling.
Mr Turk said he was not aware of any other country that had proposed such a measure, admitting he could not believe it when told of the plan. "You wonder what else we need to invent to make life difficult for people who are in need of protection, vulnerable," he said.
Australia's punitive approach to those who attempted to come by boat was "so paradoxical" because Australia had such a very long and proud and continuing tradition of offering asylum and resettlement to refugees.
For help or information visit beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, or Lifeline on 131 114.