SYDNEY – More than 10,000 asylum seekers in Victoria have been given hope that their claims will be processed after the state government announced changes to accessing legal assistance.

Under a new two-year initiative community legal aid centres including Refugee Legal and Justice Connect will now be able to assist in visa preparations and written claims for asylum seekers living in Victoria.

Executive Director of Refugee Legal, David Manne said that legal representation is vital for asylum seekers who struggle with “language barriers and mental health issues stemming from a history of torture and trauma.”

“This is about ensuring people in our community who fear returning to life-threatening harm are given a fair go before the law”, he said.

The initiative will also provide Refugee Legal with extra lawyers including two specialist immigration lawyers and a coordinator who will organise the pro bono and low cost legal assistance elements.

Special cases that entail court proceedings will also be directed towards the services of Victoria Legal Aid.

They said general information and education about legal procedures and requirements will also be provided.

Victoria Legal Aid Managing Director Bevan Warner said: “early support is so important because most of these asylum seekers do not have any right to a review hearing if the government rejects their claim for protection.”

Priority is given to those asylum seekers who arrived by boat in Australia between August 2012 and January 2014, also referred to as the “legacy caseload”.

Under the Labor government’s “No Advantage” policy, which aimed to deter asylum seekers from travelling to Australia, approximately 25,000 people who arrived in that period had their refugee status frozen and were placed on bridging visas with no working rights.

This caused a backlog of claims as legal centres and courts struggled with the influx of interviewing and processing.

Attorney-General Martin Pakula said, “The Commonwealth withdrew all kinds of funded legal assistance for those people back in 2014”.

The government’s introduction of a “fast-track” system in 2014 changed the way claims were processed.

Asylum seekers now have only one attempt to claim for their protection and have no right to review if it is rejected.

As well as narrower definitions and restrictions of refugee statuses, interviews have also been cut in the majority of cases and claims are decided “on the papers” by the new Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA).

Principal solicitor at the Sydney-based Refugee Advice and Casework service, Katie Wrigley said this was problematic and that calls for judicial reviews are to be expected.

“Our concerns relate to the fact that the person is not there physically to answer any question that a decision-maker may have, so they’re really prevented from re-examining a person’s credibility”, she said.

Despite allegations that the new system has only processed a few dozen claims so far, the government said it is progressing satisfactorily considering they were only able to implement it in July last year.

A spokesperson for Immigration Minister Peter Dutton laid the blame on Labor and said, “Labor in Opposition…delayed the Coalition’s legislation to deal with the 30,000 irregular maritime arrivals who had not been processed under Labor”.

“A considerable number of cases from the legacy caseload are now being dealt with”, he said.

Earlier this month, the government again came under fire for the treatment of asylum seekers after they confirmed dozens of children would be sent back to Nauru just a day after announcing there were no more asylum seeker children left in on-shore detention centres.

Allegations of inadequate facilities, mishandling of documents and protests by asylum seekers within the detention centres have long held the government in controversy with how asylum seekers are treated and addressed in Australia.

“Helping displaced people in such need of safety is the right thing for a secure community like ours to do… the hurdles they often face in trying to get their refugee claims recognised are significant”, Mr Manne said.

Both the government and Victoria Legal Aid have praised the work of volunteers and specialist lawyers in undertaking the added caseload.

Mr Warner said, “We commend the Victorian legal profession whose commitment to helping these highly vulnerable asylum seekers has made this partnership and increasing their access to justice possible”.

While it is yet unclear how well the initiative in Victoria will work, the Attorney-General said the $2 million being provided to community legal centres over two years will allow specialist aid to be provided where it is needed most.

“The Legacy Caseload Initiative will provide those who most need support with legal assistance to navigate the complex process of seeking refugee status”, he said.

“This is about helping those who have risked their lives in the hope of making a better life for themselves in Australia.”

– Viki Gerova, Correspondent (Oceania)

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