‘We are the forgotten people’: the distres of Australia’s ‘invisible’ asylum seekers

Nearly 29,000 asylum seekers are in Australia on temporary bridging visas. These people may be free from detention but with many denied education, healthcare and the right to work they remain locked in desperate poverty and with no idea what their futures hold. A Guardian Australia investigation

Life and demise on a bridging visa

July nights were freezing. The barbecue, though, was warm, a bulwark against the cold of the descending dark.

Balan, a Tamil asylum seeker, had turned his intellect already to the night ahead. He knew he could not afford to operates a heater. He and his housemates needed to watch every dollar and wintertime was the hardest hour. The last electricity bill had run to hundreds of dollars they didnt have.

Quietly, as the shared dinner brought to an end, Balan gathered up the coals from the barbecue in a tin and carried them to his room. There he slept on the floor, next to the coals as they burned down. To keep the heat in, he closed the door behind him.

As he slept, the room filled with carbon monoxide.

In the morning, Balans friend, worried by his failure to appear for breakfast, pushed open the door. Balan had patently realised at some phase in the night that he needed to get off. He had constructed it halfway to the door before he collapsed.

The coals were still warm. But Balan was dead, killed by carbon monoxide gas poisoning.

The privation that contributed to Balans demise didnt occur in the straitened situation of a refugee camp, or on the borderlands of a war-torn region.

It happened in Sydney, to a human living legally in Australia on a bridging visa.

Afghan asylum seeker Farid in a park next to his house in western Sydney. He says he dreams of the working day being allowed to visit his family, who lives in Iran as refugees. Photograph: Abdul Karim Hekmat

Today nearly 29,000 people live in Australia on a temporary permit to reside in the country known as a bridging visa E( BVE ). Yet they are the invisible. They live in the darkness, on the fringes of Australian society.

Bridging visa E is for people who have at some stage been judged to have been unlawfully in Australia. Typically they are granted to asylum seekers who have arrived by boat and have constructed claims for refugee protection. Balan was one of these, having fled the continuing and brutal persecution of the Tamil minority in post-civil war Sri Lanka.

BVEs can be valid for 28 days or up to three years. Hundreds of people have lived on rolling visas, one temporary solution after another, for more than five years.

Many cannot access healthcare somewhere around a third have no right to Australias publicly funded Medicare despite the fact that they may carry physical and mental scars from their homelands, their journeys and their initial incarceration under Australias policy of mandatory detention.

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