"Seven years too long"

Over the past seven years Australia has primarily used community and offshore detention in the processing of asylum seekers. For seven years we have heard stories of the poor conditions of these detention centres, the high rates of mental illness and the gruelling process it takes to be recognised as a refugee in Australia. Kids have grown into adults in detention. Processing times have been so drawn out that asylum seekers who arrived in 2012 have their final decision date scheduled for early 2021. For many, the cause of this lies with the creation and application of the ‘fast track’ processing policy.

Devised under the Abbott Government in 2014, the ‘fast track’ policy applies to asylum seekers that arrived by boat from August 2012 to December 2013. That meant that individuals who applied for asylum in Australia via the processes in place when they first arrived were told—a year into their stay—that they would instead be switched to the ‘fast track’ model. Whilst the name conjures up images of quick processing times and swift decisions, the policy is anything but. Many have waited 5-7 years to have their claim finalised. As of April 2020, some 5,958 applications were yet to be finalised; the majority of which are ‘fast track’ applicants who have been held in detention for what has now been 7 years of waiting. Such a prolonged period of uncertainty has had a detrimental impact on the mental health of refugee applicants with research highlighting that sustained stress has led to significant mental deterioration. One paper went as far as to rename the ‘fast track’ process as “lethal hopelessness”.

Not only is the policy misleading, but it is also a strong example of doublespeak. A term coined by George Orwell, doublespeak exists as the bureaucratic lexicon used to confuse and disorientate individuals with messages that deliberately suggest one thing, but mean another. When first introduced, the ‘fast track’ process was positioned as a policy that would streamline the refugee process, making it more efficient and cutting waiting times. Ironically, officials warned that without this new process, refugees could face a backlog of “up to seven years”. But hidden in the recesses of the policy was the introduction of the ‘no advantage policy’ which removed merit based appeal and the ability for retrial through the Administrative Appeals Tribunal. It removed the chance for asylum seekers to apply for Permanent Protection and, unlike the traditional process, individual cases were to be assessed without a hearing or any additional supporting evidence. Now, applicants can only provide a single sheet of paper outlining their case to support their application. Each individual’s complicated life story has been reduced to A4 fine print.

Every one of these measures have made securing visas progressively more difficult to attain and the process slower and less accessible. Since implementation the refusal rate has grown from 5% to nearly 30% as of 2017.

Whilst they wait, asylum seekers exist in an agonising state of uncertain limbo, relying on temporary visas which afford limited rights and can prohibit individuals from working or accessing social security payments. ‘Asylum seeker syndrome’ has become commonplace. This condition describes the ongoing mental toll and trauma that results from the navigation of Australia’s convoluted asylum seeker processes: a balancing act of visa uncertainty, difficult interaction with a foreign and confusing immigration system and the compounding effect this may have on past trauma. Repeatedly, international and Australian bodies have called out for a less punitive approach to detention and an end to protracted waiting times.

Doublespeak appears in Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four as a tool of the state to conduct institutionalised cruelty, clothed under seemingly beneficial or euphemistic language. In this case, the government used the rhetoric of ‘efficiency’ as the means to justify what has become a convoluted and cruel process. It is not ironic or counter-intuitive that processing times have continued to be sluggish for so long - it is deliberate. It is no-coincidence that the Fast Track policy was introduced in a time that Australia and the world were facing unprecedented levels of asylum seekers under the 2012 refugee crisis. Coercive and misleading in its title, the ‘fast track’ process was devised to fast track asylum seekers out of Australia, not in.