Twenty eight year-old Rajab Khan sits by him self in his dark, box apartment in Adelaide. Above him hangs a small picture of his mother with her eyes smiling but her mouth shut. A reminder of his family who sit in their tents thousands of miles away in Pakistan, locked out of Australia.
Khan fled Pakistan and arrived in Australia as a refugee in 2019. Scared and unwell, he remains on a safe haven enterprise visa, giving him five years of protection in Australia.
“I haven’t seen my family since I came. This is not a life that I want to spend in reality.”
His family is on his mind every day, but he has no way to bring them here. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a bigger burden on his worries.
“I always think about my family because if they become sick, they can’t go to the hospital.”
Khan is critical of the hospitals in Pakistan. He says the hospitals “treat humans like ATM machines”, always trying to get money from them, but he says most people, like his family, cannot afford to pay for health care.
Curtin University Centre for Human Rights Education associate professor Caroline Fleay researches and advocates for refugees. She recognises COVID-19 has cut off many Australians from their families in other states or overseas, and that the more than 30,000 refugees with temporary protection visas, like Kahn, are particularly vulnerable.
“Often these people have families who are in countries which are suffering really badly due to COVID-19, or really badly if they’re in countries that have great levels of violence.
“Many come to Australia on their own hoping that once they’ve settled here they will be able to bring their close family members with them.”
Kahn lost his father in Pakistan due to the war. His mother sent him to Australia for safety, with the intention to join him in 2020. But the pandemic had other plans.
Khan lost his hospitality job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Australia. He has not been employed since. Without a family or a community at work, he finds himself isolated.
“I’ve been depressed since that time but finally my GP found me a psychologist.”
The COVID-19 pandemic led Australia into economic recession, which caused increased unemployment. However, refugees bore the brunt of this because so many of them were working in low-income and insecure jobs.
“What little emergency relief they could access was a drop in the well of need
they found themselves in.”Joanna Josephs
The Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees And Detainees provides essential services to those seeking safety in Australia. When the pandemic hit, CARAD saw a rapid influx in requests for assistance because many refugees had lost their jobs and were not eligible for government-funded support such as JobKeeper.
CARAD general manager Joanna Josephs explains the wider WA community faced similar challenges due to COVID-19, but the main difference was the lack of support and assistance available to refugees.
“What little emergency relief they could access was a drop in the well of need they found themselves in,” she says.
Fleay agrees. She has watched the government systematically remove the very little support that was available to refugees and increasingly cut them off from funding. This has put pressure on non-government organisations who take donations to support these thousands of people. CARAD has seen this impact. From March 2020 the rate of referrals to their services doubled and emergency relief demand and expenditure reached record levels.
“I now have to face my destiny on my own,” Khan says. “I hope to see my family again one day.”
As Khan longs for his family to join him in Australia, even more refugees across the world remain stuck due to COVID-19, waiting to be let in . Gai Yusufu, 30, is a refugee in Kenya. Fleeing from war in the Democratic Republic of Congo he is desperately trying to get into Australia. Over the past four years he tried everything and lost hope. But after an excruciating wait, his visa is now ready. The only thing stopping him is Australia’s closed international borders. Until they reopen, he’s in limbo.
Gai Yusufu waits at a refugee camp in Kenya. Photos: Gai Yusufu.
For Yusufu in Kenya, things are difficult. Refugees are not given any kind of support. The hundreds of tents know no social distancing. The people know of nothing but war. But waiting in Kenya is better than the alternative.
“I cannot go back to my home country because people die day and night.”
Yusufu was separated from his family during the war and hasn’t seen them since. He doesn’t know if they are still alive.
He says: “I want to get very far away from this suffering and come to Australia because I know it is a country that helps refugees.”
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the refugee process to Australia was incredibly difficult for many. With programmes changing and government attitudes hardening due to COVID-19, it has become even more difficult.
Fleay says now, more than ever, is the time for amnesty and compassion. As Kahn is left waiting for his family in Australia with very little support, even more are left in dire situations elsewhere, longing to come to Australia.
“It wasn’t the case that we we are all in the same boat here,” Fleay says. “There were people who were treated pretty badly at the height of it all.”