David Odeesh was overjoyed when the Federal Government granted his sister and her family humanitarian visas in January.
- About 4,000 refugees with humanitarian visas are stranded overseas
- Australian citizens and permanent residents are the only people allowed to enter the country
- David Odeesh says his sister and her family are struggling to survive in Beirut
After escaping Islamic State in their hometown of Mosul in Iraq and fleeing to Lebanon, they had planned to arrive in Sydney in March.
But six months on, Mr Odeesh, 27, said he was still waiting for them to arrive due to the Government suspending Australia’s refugee intake as a result of COVID-19.
“They had all the documents ready, all the approval but when this COVID-19 happened, everything stopped,” Mr Odeesh said from his home in Bossley Park, in Sydney’s west.
Mr Odeesh said with no chance of resettlement in Australia at the moment, his sister Sandy, her husband and her five children, who live in a small unit in Beirut, were struggling to survive.
For the last six months, he had tried to help them by applying two times for an exemption to the border restrictions.
However, he said on both occasions the applications were rejected.
“It’s not fair,” he said.
“They’ve been accepted, and they got approval for the humanitarian visas … but they don’t consider them as permanent residents.”
With Australia’s international borders closed due to the pandemic, Australian citizens and permanent residents remain the only people allowed to enter the country, resulting in the country’s refugee intake coming to a halt since March.
Refugees receive their humanitarian visas overseas and only officially gain permanent residency once they set foot in Australia, meaning they are caught by the Government’s strict border rules.
The result, according to the Refugee Council, is that about 4,000 refugees with humanitarian visas to enter Australia are currently stranded overseas.
The organisation’s chief executive, Paul Power, said refugees should be allowed to enter Australia like other permanent residents.
“I can see no reason why people who have permanent resident visas to come to Australia as refugees — whose need for refugee resettlement was recognised by the Australian Government because of the urgency of the situation — can’t be allowed to come,” Mr Power said.
“[Allowing them into the country] is a practical thing that Australia could … offer people who have already been approved to come to the country and who have gone through all of the legal hoops required for refugee resettlement.”
At Settlement Services International, general manager Yamamah Agha said refugees stuck overseas were in extra need of resettlement at the moment.
With many parts of the world already grappling with humanitarian issues, Ms Agha said COVID-19 was making life for many refugees more difficult than ever.
“The pandemic does not discriminate and those people in need of resettlement, their needs are still there,” she said.
For Diana Haddad, the longer the ban on refugees entering Australia remains, the more worried she gets about the future of her family stranded in Iraq.
In March, Ms Haddad’s sister Mirna, who fled the war in Syria and now lives in Erbil, in Iraq’s north, was told the Australian Government had granted her and her family humanitarian visas.
But two weeks later, the family’s chance at a new life in Australia was suddenly put on hold indefinitely.
“They were so excited they even had the clothes they were going to wear on the plane ready,” Ms Haddad said from her home in Moorebank, in Sydney’s south-west.
“Now we don’t know what’s going to happen to them.
“There’s no school, there’s no work, no money. I’m so sad I can’t do anything for them.”
In a statement, a Department for Home Affairs spokesperson defended the border measures saying “the travel restrictions have been successful in slowing the spread of coronavirus in Australia and were implemented on the advice of Australian Health Protection Principal Committee”.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge declined an interview with the ABC on the issue.