We all know someone who has been impacted by COVID-19 and can understand how devastating its effects have been, extending well-beyond the pandemic’s peak. Vulnerable groups, such as bridging visa holders, have suffered from disproportional treatment by the Government in their response to COVID-19. Some of the issues raised include the lack of social security services provided to bridging visa holders who have lost jobs or struggle due to reduced working hours, as well as the growing confusion around granting travel exemptions.
What are bridging visas?
Bridging visas are a class of temporary visas under s 37 of the Migration Act 1958 (Cth) and are granted to people who meet a specific set of criteria. This can involve people who are applying for a longer term visa, appealing a decision regarding their visa or making arrangements to leave Australia. Bridging visas A and B are both temporary visas that allow people to lawfully live in Australia after their substantive visa has expired and are enforced with the conditions of a person’s previous visa. The primary difference between the two is that Bridging Visa B holders are normally able to travel outside of Australia and return, whereas Bridging Visa A does a person to return to Australia once they leave the country.
A solution? Extend Job Keeper and Job Seeker to Bridging Visa holders
Article 9 of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights(ICESCR) recognises the right of everyone to social security, however, Centrelink is only available to Australian citizens and permanent residents.
Many people have lost their jobs due to COVID and those in casual work may be overlooked by employers, due to their residency status. All of these factors have pushed some bridging visa holders to a state of destitute, in which they are squatting and relying on charities like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) to provide them food. Chief Executive of the ASRC, Kon Karapandagiotidis, explained how difficult it had been to help refugee families during the peak of the pandemic, stating that the charity is “at breaking point”.
Therefore, it is imperative that the Australian government does not rely on charities to provide temporary visa holders with support.
Canada’s approach to disaster payments, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) contrasts that of Australia. This payment of $2000 over four weeks was available to any person who was over the age of 15 and resided in Canada, which meant that those who lived and had a home in Canada could access CERB. Canada continues to support working residents through Canada Worker Lockdown Benefit and the Canada Recovery Caregiving Benefit in a fair manner that is not restricted solely to citizens or permanent residents.
To tackle this problem, Job Keeper and Job Seeker can be extended to bridging visa holders who have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, similarly to Canada’s approach to CERB. These can be in the form of shortened working hours or job loss. Additionally, nearly 315 000 people are on bridging visas A, B and C in Australia, which shows the need for the Government to encourage progression in visa processing. A great solution is prioritising bridging visa holder applications for permanent residency so they can access Centrelink and support themselves.
Another solution? A clear policy for travel exemptions and temporarily waiving BVB applications for BVA holders
There is confusion surrounding what constitutes compassionate and compelling grounds to travel. One might think that attending a relative’s funeral or caring for a relative during the pandemic would warrant a travel exemption, but it can be shown from cases like Ash Fadian that such reasons may still be refused. She was on her Bridging Visa B and wanted to attend her brother-in-law’s funeral in the UK during the pandemic, but was met with six refusals for a travel exemption for compassionate reasons.
Currently, there is no explicit legislation regarding travel exemptions, however the Outward Travel Restrictions Operation Directive attempts to describe the circumstances under which a travel exemption may be granted. Cases like Ash Fadian have shown that there must be a solid policy in place to clarify the meaning of compassionate grounds. A prime solution to this can be to introduce a clear definition or set of criteria in the Biosecurity (Entry Requirements—Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) Determination 2022, which is a legislative instrument that provides information about conferring travel exemptions.
There is also an automatic exemptions policy in Australia that allows, for example, fully vaccinated Australian citizens and permanent residents to travel from and return to without a travel exemption. Bridging visa B holders and several other temporary visa holders like the Business Innovation and Investment visa are now able to travel to other countries and return to Australia, taken that they are fully vaccinated and were previously allowed travel. However, the policies for BVA holders have not changed since the onset of the pandemic. These bridging visa holders must apply for a BVB 30 days before travel, which can involve a lengthy process, as their cases must be heard by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal before a person leaves the country. A response to this issue can involve temporarily waiving the application for a BVB when leaving for compassionate reasons, considering they return to Australia within a three-month timeframe and each person meets the correct vaccination and isolation procedures.
Article 12 (2) and (4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights(ICCPR) convey every person’s right to leave a country and not to be arbitrarily barred from entry. If a BVA holder urgently needs to leave the country for reasons such as attending a funeral or supporting a sick relative, why should they have to go through such a long-winded process when this precious time can be spent with their loved ones?
Although slow progress is being made, there is still reform required to align the circumstances of Bridging Visa holders with other temporary visa holders. Being told by the Australian government that it was “time to go home” after having spent years in Australia, contributing to its economy and paying taxes is distressing to hear during these trying times. Every person, regardless of immigration status, is at risk of contracting the virus and the limbo regarding travel exemptions has gone too long.
In relation to these issues, the Rights Resource Network SA have provided a submission to the Senate Standing Committee on COVID-19 in February 2022, which can be read here.
Fariza Ali is a final year Law Student at UniSA and a Rights Resource Network SA volunteer with a passion for social justice and migration law.