The limbo solution: free, but not to work

THE Pacific solution is collapsing under sheer weight of numbers, forcing the government to release into the community thousands of arrivals who will be stripped of the right to work and other privileges afforded to previous asylum seekers.

They will be left for up to five years with limited bridging visas which forbid work and family reunions, and offered limited rental assistance and welfare payments of $438.40 a fortnight.

With about 2500 people arriving by boat each month since the Pacific solution was announced on August 13, the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, said there was no possibility of sending everybody to Nauru or Manus Island which will eventually have a combined joint capacity of 2100 people.

On Wednesday 19 people, including four children, became the first asylum seekers sent to Manus Island while there are 387 people on Nauru.

But about 7600 people have arrived since August 13, and all would be subject to the same no-advantage test that applies to those sent to Nauru and Manus Island, regardless of whether they are in Australia the Pacific.

The test is designed to discourage people from getting on boats by making them wait just as long for a refugee visa and resettlement as if they had stayed in the camp from which they disembarked.

''Could it be five years? Yes, it could,'' Mr Bowen said when asked how long the no-advantage test would last.

''It is a difficult situation for them, just as it is a difficult situation for the 42 million displaced people around the world who don't have the chance to come to Australia by boat.''

The Greens slammed bridging visas as no better than the temporary protection visas issued by the Howard government. Those visas allowed people to work, but people had to reapply and could be sent home at the whim of the government.

The collapse of the Pacific solution came just 14 months after the then head of the Immigration Department, Andrew Metcalfe, warned the policy would not work without the Malaysia plan as well, and Australia would be inundated with boats.

The opposition and Greens refuse to pass legislation for Malaysia plan. Late on Wednesday the Greens and the Coalition joined forces in the Senate to disallow a government rule that would automatically renew the bridging visas when they expired.

The Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, said the government had lost control of Australia's borders. Boat people were coming to Australia ''illegally'' and were ''taking unfair advantage of our decency as a people''.

Mr Bowen also announced the processing of asylum seekers on Nauru would be under way early next year after Amnesty International described the conditions there as unacceptable. . But even if these people are assessed as refugees, they will have to wait five years for resettlement.

One government source said as cruel as the Amnesty reports were, it was hoped they would relay to asylum seekers that it was not worth getting on a boat. ''We're not losing much sleep over it,'' said a senior source of news reports yesterday about the despair and conditions on Nauru.

The Refugee Council of Australia labelled the ''no-advantage'' test ''a nonsense'', with no average waiting times for asylum seekers around the world.

Chief executive Paul Power said the government was ''tying itself in knots'' to make the no-advantage test work, arguing it was impossible to try to make Australia's refugee system commensurate with the region.

''There are no international standards that can be used to work out what's fair. There are so few practical solutions available to people who need them that there is no fairness in the international system,'' he said.

Amnesty's campaigns director, Andrew Beswick, said ''this milestone marks yet another attempt by the federal government to create an elaborate plan to punish vulnerable people for seeking safety and protection and squibs our responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention.''

Pamela Curr, from Melbourne's Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said it was disappointing that work rights would be removed.

The story The limbo solution: free, but not to work first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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