As part of the government’s new onshore processing system for asylum seekers arriving by boat, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen announced an increase in the amount of bridging visas to clear out the crowded detention centres.

In The Australian today refugee advocate Marion Le is reported as saying bridging visas are “just another name for Howard-era temporary protection visas”. But how do bridging visas work? Do they let asylum seekers live peacefully in the community or do they keep them stuck with an uncertain future?

Crikey asked the experts …

What does a bridging visa entail?

“Bridging visas are just like a bail authority,” explained Mary Crock, a professor of public law at the University of Sydney and an expert in immigration refugee law.

“Those seeking protection as a refugee are asking for a visa, as they have a right to under domestic and international law. If they don’t come with a valid visa the law states that they must be detained and then granted a visa or removed from the country,” said Crock. “But there has always been the ability within the government to grant visas to people even if their full right to remain hasn’t yet to be determined”. This is where bridging visas come in, allowing people to live in the community while their permanent visa applications are being processed.

The Immigration Department website discusses five different types of bridging visas, all with different conditions. Some give visa-holders the right to work. Others permit a living allowance. Others do not allow work or the ability to receive a living allowance and make holders reliant on family, friends and the community to support them (these are often given in cases of applicants seeking a review of their visa arrangements).

What are the work conditions?

Speculation in the media today says that the most likely visa given to these asylum seekers is the E subclass 050 bridging visa, which allows limited work and income assistance, dependant on a wide variety of conditions — including only work permits if visa-holders prove a “compelling need to work”. Only those with work rights get access to Medicare.

“Conditions are completely variable so depends on how they are framed,” Jennifer Burn, associate professor and immigration lecturer at the University of Technology, Sydney, told Crikey. Usually if you’ve been given work rights on a bridging visa then “you can work in Australia in any lawful occupation, there’s no limitations,” says Burn. “But some people may have a work limitation. That’s why it’s so hard to speak about it. A student may only be allowed to work 20-hours a week.”

The bridging visa given depends on what the Minister for Immigration allows. “The normal rule is if you don’t have a visa you don’t have an immediate right to work at all,” said Crock, explaining that asylum seeker detainees on Christmas Island are legally classified as being processed offshore and therefore it’s up to the minister’s discretion in each individual case to allow them a bridging visa with working rights.

How much is the living allowance given?

Living allowances are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Those on a bridging visa that provides a living allowance receive the same rate as Newstart (although technically it is classified as 89% of a Centrelink Special Benefit, which is equivalent to Newstart, but a different classification). That amount is currently $486.80 per fortnight for a single person with no children, or $439.40 each per fortnight for a couple. A single person with children receive a $526.60 per fortnight.

Who gets a bridging visa?

Asylum seekers who arrive by plane are already eligible for bridging visas, but now Bowen said those arriving by boat will also get them to prevent detention centres operating over-capacity. Crock notes that due to the recent end of the monsoon season, it’s highly likely that more boats will soon arrive, as they do at this time every year.

Is a bridging visa like the temporary protection visa?

“It’s a different category of visas,” explained Burn. “A Temporary Protection Visa is a substantive visa and there were certain rights attached to substantive visa holders. They could more easily apply for other types of visas while on a TPV,” said Burn.

“They are totally different from Temporary Protection Visas. It’s just wrong [to say they are the same],” Crock told Crikey. She noted that the Labor government appeared more likely to offer bridging visas that gave work and pension allowances than the Howard government was.

How long does a bridging visa last for?

“It could last as little as a few days, up to years, depending on the immigration process in question,” explains Burn. “If a student holding an international student visa makes an application for a protection visa once they are here, the bridging visa chips in to allow them to stay in the community while it’s being processed.”

Is it possible to get a bridging visa and then get rejected from getting permanent residency?

“Of course. It’s the same as if you are in detention, said Crock. “You’ve got a right of appeal and you can apply and extend your bridging visa. Otherwise if you don’t appeal, you can leave voluntarily. What happens then is that the type of bridging visa you’re on changes. You can have one that allows you to sort out your affairs and then you move on from there.”

Is a bridging visa just more paperwork and costs in the already lengthy refugee application process?

Actually, living in the community costs around 90% less than offshore processing, says Crock. It’ll be quicker too, added Burn: “It sounds as though the application for the bridging visa would go along with the protection or the refugee visa application, and therefore it should be something that’s reasonably streamlined.”

Update: This article has been updated to further clarify that not all bridging visas automatically receive a living allowance and that the rate is equal to Newstart but is a separate classification by Centrelink.

Peter Fray

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