Speech: Let them study; let them stay.


Last week the government held the Jobs and Skills Summit and congratulated itself for inviting everyone to the table and for being open to all ideas to upskill Australia and address workforce shortages. Equal opportunity, visa changes, training opportunities and skilled migration were hot topics on the table. But in fact not everyone was at the table and the equal opportunity talk was pretty superficial because, as usual, refugees and people seeking asylum were ignored.

In recent weeks my office has been inundated with messages from refugees and people seeking asylum who are desperate to upskill, study, work and contribute to society. Many of them sought asylum a decade ago and have long been recognised as refugees. Known as the 'legacy case load'—as if they were not people with feelings, hopes and dreams—they have spent years under the cruelty of the offshore detention regime and then in limbo, trapped in a cycle of endless visa renewals and often without access to basic rights. The cruelty is calculated and deliberate. Both Labor and the coalition refuse to treat refugees and people seeking asylum like humans who deserve dignity, because they want to use them as examples to discourage more people from coming to our shores. Effectively, these governments have said, 'Look here: this is how badly we will treat you if you dare to come here.' Such is their level of cruelty that they would rather people suffer persecution than find a safe haven here.

The dehumanisation does not end when refugees are finally allowed into Australia. The thousands who are living in limbo here are effectively kept handcuffed in the margins by virtue of their temporary visa status and strict visa conditions, which force them to exist as second-class citizens. The most heartbreaking injustice is how the government denies young refugees the right to higher education. Denying people their right to study and learn is nothing short of sadistic.

I want to speak about two young women who have reached out to me and whose experiences illustrate this cruelty that so many others are encountering. I won't name them, to protect their privacy. When she was nine years old the first of these women came here by boat and was immediately sent to Nauru. While detained she was subjected to trauma which no child should be subjected to, including witnessing suicide attempts. Her mental health was severely impacted. She was finally evacuated from Nauru in 2018 on medical grounds. Once in Australia and in community detention, this woman—a recognised refugee—began attending school, where she excelled. Last year she was granted a full scholarship to a university. Then she turned 18 and the government stripped her of her study rights because of her temporary visa status. She had to forfeit the scholarship and, just like that, her window of hope for a better life slammed shut.

The second of these women has a similar story: arriving 10 years ago as a 19-year-old and then being sent straight through to offshore detention on Nauru. On Nauru she was subjected to horrific treatment including solitary confinement. No-one was ever held accountable for these injustices. She was finally evacuated on medical grounds and has spent the last two years repeatedly urging the government to let her study. Before she fled her country she was studying medicine. I understand that these women have both contacted the minister, but to no avail as yet.

There is a simple fix: transition people onto permanent visas and grant them the right to study, work and live here. This is consistent with international law, which recognises that everyone has a right to an education, including refugees. So many young refugees are being denied study rights by this government. They are full of promise and potential. They have had many of their childhood and adolescent years stolen by the Labor and Liberal governments, but they are determined. As Saba Vasefi, a refugee advocate, wrote in the Guardian recently:

But some who are now adolescents continue to experience the punitive effects, legal limbo and structural violence of Australia's deterrence system.

They are not asking for compensation or an apology or a handout; they're just asking to study. But both Labor and Liberal governments should hang their heads in shame.

The women I met are some of the most passionate and strong people. They and others like them have suffered too much at the hands of Australia's cruel policies. Earlier this week Senator Wong expressed dismay that girls in Afghanistan could no longer go to school. We should be extending the same concern for refugees and those seeking asylum in Australia who want to study here. So I urge the Labor government and Minister Giles to urgently make the changes needed to allow them to study. This country, any country, would be lucky to have them. Let them study; let them stay.