Only one in 13,000 refugees has been resettled from a regional visa program

Arad Nik never imagined he would live somewhere as beautiful as Tasmania’s Huon Valley. When he fled Iran in 2012, he thought he would eventually end up in one of Australia’s urban centers.

But like thousands of refugees in Australia, he took up calls to move to a regional area with the promise that one day he could be permanently resettled to Australia.

“It is difficult to find a job. And many refugees are stuck in this situation,” he told 07:30. “It’s hard for all of us.”

Shortly after arriving in Tasmania on Christmas Day 2019, COVID-19 struck.

While the nation was engulfed in lockdowns, he ended up sleeping poorly for about four months.

“I couldn’t work. I couldn’t find a job. I couldn’t build my business. And I was stuck in that situation,” he said.

“I slept in my car [in] freezing weather.”

Arad Nik started a business selling Iranian sweets.ABC news

He eventually found shelter in a barn in Cygnet and slowly began to get his life back on track. Inspired by his mother’s cooking, he founded a company that sells Iranian sweets.

The move to a regional area was a requirement for his Temporary Protection Visa, known as an RWA.

“A Safe Haven Enterprise Visa – or SHEV – is basically a temporary protection visa for someone who turns out to be a refugee,” human rights lawyer David Manne told ABC’s 7:30 am.

Attached to the visa is an important promise that Nik and thousands of refugees across the country have clung to as they spread across regional areas in every state and territory: if you’ve lived, worked, or studied for five years, then you might be eligible for permanent residence.

A man prepares food at an open-air market stall.
Arad Nik says he is seeking asylum, “not looking for Centrelink”.ABC news

Mr Nik has been driving a RWA for almost five years now. But, like many refugees, he doesn’t know what comes next. He hopes to apply for a competent visa.

“Could be, [with] that skilled visa, I can become a permanent person in Australia,” he said. “I think it will be very difficult.”

The odds are stacked against him. According to Manne, most refugees cannot meet the conditions to become permanent residents.

“We work hard, pay taxes, we try to grow in this community to support people, to support the government, to support everyone,” Nik said.

“We are seeking asylum and freedom. We are not looking for Centrelink.”

Crossbench deal counterfeit SHEVs

White-haired Clive Palmer in white shirt against blue water, sailboat and houses that appeal to media
Former MP Clive Palmer was instrumental in the creation of the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa.ABC News: Kimberley Bernard

RWAs were created in 2014 as part of a deal between then-immigration secretary Scott Morrison and one-time federal MP Clive Palmer.

At the time, Mr Morrison was trying to pass legislation in the Senate that would reintroduce temporary protection visas. The previous Labor government had abolished them and Mr Morrison needed the support of some cross-benchers.

Mr Palmer agreed to support the government’s legislation, but under a number of conditions. One was the creation of a new type of visa that encouraged refugees to live in regional communities, along with the promise of potentially obtaining permanent visas.

When the deal was made, Mr Morrison said at the time: “Here lies an opportunity [to gain a permanent visa]But I think it’s a very limited opportunity and we’ll see how it plays out.”

Only a handful of permanent visas issued

A smiling man wears a suit and open collar shirt.
Lawyer David Manne says that most refugees at an RWA get stuck in limbo.ABC News: Shaun Kingma

Nearly eight years later, the prospects of many refugees who have applied for an RWA and have moved to regional areas are rather bleak.

ABC’s 7.30 can reveal that only one refugee — of the more than 13,000 who received an RWA since 2014 — has been granted a permanent visa through the RWA pathway mapped out by the government.

The three family members of that refugee have each been given permanent visas.

An additional 30 visas have been granted, which appear to be mainly partner visas.

The Department of the Interior declined to provide an on-the-record breakdown of these figures.

Mr Manne says the rest of these refugees have actually been left in the dark.

Their only option: apply for another visa for three years of temporary protection.

The path is limited, he says, as few can meet the high bar required to transfer to another visa, such as a proficient visa.

“For almost all people who have been granted a SHEV visa, the skilled visas have such a high level of English proficiency and qualifications that they simply cannot meet those requirements,” said Mr Manne.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said that “the SHEV track is designed to provide a limited opportunity to apply for prescription visas, including certain permanent visas”.

“RWA holders who meet the requirements of the RWA process do not automatically receive one of the prescribed visas,” said the spokesperson.

“To obtain an RWA track visa, applicants must apply for and meet the specific criteria of the chosen visa and RWA track requirements.”

‘Delay and Dysfunction’ for Visa Processing

A man smiles while sitting on a riding mower.
Rhohullah Hussaini works as a municipal concierge in local parks and stadiums.ABC News: Shaun Kingma

A casual Facebook chat in 2013 led Rhohullah Hussaini to the town of Swan Hill, located in regional Victoria, along the Murray River. It has been his home ever since.

“Swan Hill is a beautiful place. And I love this city. I love the Swan Hill area. And I love the people here on Swan Hill. It’s helped me a lot,” Hussaini told ABC’s 7:30 am.

Few could match Mr. Hussaini’s passion for his city and his great love for the community.

His full-time job is as a janitor. His mornings start early, mowing and maintaining the municipality’s vast number of parks and stadiums. They’re spotless by the time he’s done.

He also volunteers for the local emergency service and is an allied health aide to other Afghan men in Swan Hill.

“If anything happened, we’re ready to help, which is why I joined the SES,” he said.

“I love to help others. And this is the only way for me to give something back to this beautiful country town.”

Hussaini is cheerful and hopeful, but behind his smile lies a tragic story.

A man is wearing a hi-vis yellow shirt with a blue collar.
Rhohullah Hussaini applied for a SHEV in 2019, but his application has still not been considered.ABC news

He arrived in Australia by boat in 2012, after fleeing persecution in Afghanistan. He has a two-year-old daughter in Afghanistan whom he has never met. Four months ago, the Taliban shot one of his sisters.

Mr Hussaini faces another dilemma. He applied for an RWA in 2019. But three years later, his application has still not been processed.

Mr Manne says these kinds of delays have become far too common.

“Processing has been so delayed and bad that some people have even waited years for that visa to be processed,” said Mr Manne.

Hussaini says he does not understand why the government has made it difficult for refugees who want to work just like him to settle. He says that when vacancies are advertised at the municipality he works for, it is sometimes difficult to fill vacancies.

“This is the fucking workforce we need right now, after all this pandemic.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior said: “The ministry aims to complete RWA applications as soon as possible. [as] possible. This is a very complex process and can take some time.”

Mr Hussaini’s dream, like many Australians, is a simple one: to buy his own house, a difficult task for those on temporary protection visas.

And he hopes that one day he will be able to reunite with his family in Australia.

“I just hope I can have my family in this country. To keep them safe, as a brother, as a husband, as a father,” he said. “And I wish and I hope that I can hug my daughter.”

It’s a distant dream. But it’s one he’s holding.

This story came about with the help of a Michael Gordon Fellowship.

Watch this story tonight at 7:30 PM on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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