Senator David Shoebridge – Estimates questions regarding visas granted to people fleeing Gaza; and any Government support to those people

Photo of Senator David Shoebridge
May 28, 2024

Thanks, Chair. I was asking some questions earlier about visas granted to people fleeing genocide in Gaza. If I remember the numbers correctly, there have been 9,600 applications from people from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with 2,341 granted and 1,831 refused. You have refusals running at about 70 per cent of approvals. Is that standard for tourist-class visas across the rest of the globe? Are they the sorts of numbers you see?

CHAIR: I have to share the call. We will, presumably, come back to this at another time. Senator Shoebridge, you’ve got a block of time, and then we just have to finish off some questions here.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Thanks, Chair. I was asking some questions earlier about visas granted to people fleeing genocide in Gaza. If I remember the numbers correctly, there have been 9,600 applications from people from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, with 2,341 granted and 1,831 refused. You have refusals running at about 70 per cent of approvals. Is that standard for tourist-class visas across the rest of the globe? Are they the sorts of numbers you see?

Mr Kilner : No, Senator. That is larger than the normal average.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: What’s the predominant reason for people having their visas refused?

Mr Kilner : The applicants have been applying for visitor visas, and they have to meet all of the requirements for the visitor visas, which do include that they are intending to travel to Australia and stay there for a genuine visit.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: and then to return to where they came from?

Mr Kilner : To depart Australia—not necessarily return. Generally, people are assessed against the criteria to see if they may stay for—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: These are people who obviously don’t want to return to Gaza because there’s a genocide occurring. That’s why they’re having their visas refused. Is that right?

Mr Kilner : I can’t comment on that; I can’t give an opinion on that. People are applying for a visitor visa. Our decision-makers look at the entirety of the applications. They look at their genuine intentions for travel to Australia, the reasons for travel, and then they look at the other criteria as well. Then they make a decision.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: To be clear, if a decision-maker is looking at one of these applications—it may be a woman fleeing Gaza with two children; her home has been destroyed in deeply unsafe conditions. She is fearing her children’s continued lives and applies for a tourist visa. If the department forms the view that there is no intent to return to Gaza and there doesn’t seem to be any other place they could go, that would be refused for not meeting the criteria, wouldn’t it?

Ms Foster : If I can return to the evidence we gave before, the basis for refusal is a non-genuine application, and that typically has been because the information provided in the application we have—sorry, I’m confusing refusals and cancellations.

Mr Kilner : For a decision-maker to be able to grant a visitor visa they must be satisfied that somebody is intending a genuine visit to Australia, that they are a genuine temporary entrant.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: They’re a tourist?

Mr Kilner : The majority of people who were granted visas or who applied were going to visit family members in Australia.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But one of the reasons this class of visa was offered to people fleeing genocide in Gaza was because you could rapidly grant a visa. It was consistent with some of the initial visas granted to people fleeing the violence in Ukraine, wasn’t it? Some of those lessons have been learned. This was a rapid way of giving people an avenue to come to Australia.

Ms Foster : That’s correct. Mr Kilner is describing the, if you like, routine application of a visitor visa. In fact, a visitor visa—in circumstances such as people seeking to leave Gaza—is, indeed, a quick and effective way to enable people to do that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But then, of course, as it became apparent that people don’t want to return to a genocide and have no genuine intention to return to a genocide, the department started refusing the visa types, despite it initially being put forward as the rationale for these visa types being open to people from Gaza. It defeats its own purpose.

Mr Kilner : When we commenced processing visas, we prioritised those with close family links in Australia. The circumstances are now somewhat different to when we commenced the program.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You thought the war might end at some point. That’s what happened, Mr Kilner. You thought the war might end at some point.

Ms Foster : In the immediate aftermath of an incident such as the attacks, we will act as quickly as we can to facilitate, safely, the entry of people to Australia. But, as Mr Kilner said, one of the criteria that we look at is close family ties, and what we’re finding as we work our way through the applications is a higher proportion of people who do not have such close family ties.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Mr Kilner, visas were being granted initially on the assumption that the war might end and people could return to Gaza. Now that the situation has changed and it’s become even more horrific—it looks like the war will not end, and the destruction is so extreme that people can’t return to Gaza—people from Gaza who are making these applications are being punished by the department and being refused their visas because it looks like they won’t be returning. In fact, it’s doubly punishing the people from Gaza, isn’t it? They’re being punished because the war won’t end.

Ms Foster : I’ve just described to you that the higher level of refusals in the current tranche of processing is largely due to the closeness of ties with Australia. It’s not—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: But, you see, Secretary, that’s not what Mr Kilner was saying. Mr Kilner was saying that the visas were initially granted because the war was considered to be short.

Mr Kilner : No, I never—

Ms Foster : I did not hear Mr Kilner give that evidence.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Now the war continues, Mr Kilner, it is a much harder pathway for people to return, isn’t it? So they’re being considered to not meet the tourist requirements.

Mr Kilner : What I said was that we prioritise those applications with close family links. Then I also said the circumstances have changed since the commencement of that process.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Yes, and the circumstance that has changed is that the department no longer thinks this is a temporary war. The department now realises we’re months and months into an unending genocide where pretty much every part of Gaza has become unlivable. That is one of the reasons, Mr Kilner, that the visas are being refused. People trying to flee from Gaza are being punished because the war has become more brutal. That’s what’s happening, isn’t it, Mr Kilner?

CHAIR: Senator Shoebridge.

Ms Foster : Senator, I’m afraid you’re putting words into Mr Kilner’s mouth that he—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I’m trying to get him to give an answer.

Ms Foster : did not say.

CHAIR: You’re putting a proposition to him and asking him to agree with it.

Ms Foster : You’re putting a proposition to him and in fact—

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I am. I’m waiting for Mr Kilner to give an answer.

CHAIR: He’s trying to.

Ms Foster : It is my prerogative as the senior officer at the table—

Senator Watt: Senator Shoebridge, can you let the secretary answer the question, please.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Then we can get an answer from Mr Kilner.

Ms Foster : Senator, it is my prerogative as the senior officer at the table to take the question, and I am exercising that prerogative.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Well, then, Ms Foster, you heard Mr Kilner.

Ms Foster : I did.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Yes. The circumstances have changed in Gaza. The circumstances that have changed in Gaza are that the war hasn’t ended and the genocide has become even more brutal. When the department is looking at these applications, the department is forming the view that these people can’t be wanting a temporary visa, because who would ever return to Gaza if they finally got free? That’s one of the reasons the refusal rate is so high, isn’t it?

Ms Foster : No, Senator, and I’ve given you that evidence several times over. Mr Kilner did not say that in the early stages we thought the war would end. You have put that proposition, and he has consistently not endorsed that.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: You have consistently not let him answer.

Ms Foster : That’s not true.

CHAIR: No. That’s not true, Senator Shoebridge.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: That’s exactly true.

CHAIR: Consider withdrawing that.

Ms Foster : The reason I’m taking the call—

CHAIR: Sorry, Ms Foster. Senator Shoebridge, those comments are unparliamentary and unhelpful, and you should consider withdrawing them.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I withdraw. If we were to look at the applications for a tourist visa in the first 12 months of the Ukraine conflict from people fleeing the violence in Ukraine, do you know how many applications there were and how many were granted and how many were refused?

Mr Kilner : I would have to take that on notice. I don’t have that with me.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Was there the same high refusal rate?

Mr Kilner : I’ll take that on notice.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Of the 2,340 visas that have been granted, how many people have actually been able to come to Australia?

Mr Kilner : The statistics I have are for between 7 October 2023 and 31 March 2024. In that time there have been 571 air arrivals of Palestinian travellers who’ve been granted a visa.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: So less than a quarter.

Mr Kilner : Yes.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: What’s happened to the other three-quarters?

Mr Kilner : Our role is to grant the visas. A visa itself does not automatically mean the visa holder is going to be able to depart Gaza, if that’s where they have come from. It is a matter for both Israel and the Egyptian authorities who facilitate the departures.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: What support is the Australian government giving to the, as at 31 March, 571 people who’ve managed to successfully flee the genocide and come to Australia? What financial support or medical support?

Mr Kilner : There are two answers, and I’ll pass over to Mr Kiley to give a more detailed answer. When people are granted visitor visas, they, as I mentioned, were visiting family members and received support directly from their families. But offers of accommodation and other supports were provided.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: I’m not asking about what the families have provided. I’ve spoken to many families, and they’re at their wits’ end. They’re often people with modest means trying to help their family. I’m asking about what the Commonwealth government has provided for people fleeing a genocide.

Mr Kilner : The government has provided support. I’ll pass to Mr Kiley, who can give some further details.

Mr Kiley : The Australian government has provided $2 million over two years for emergency financial assistance to people who have arrived. The funding is being administered through the Australian Red Cross. Individuals who wish to apply for that assistance may do so by submitting an application through the Red Cross website. That assistance commenced on 4 April. By 30 April, 526 individuals had been supported with $444,000 of emergency financial assistance.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: So, on average, less than $1,000 per person; is that right?

Mr Kiley : Five hundred and twenty-six individuals have been supported with $444,000.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: That’s about $800 a person. Is that the Commonwealth assistance—$800?

Mr Kiley : As I’ve said, we’ve provided $2 million worth of funding. That’s been administered to the Red Cross. They are making the assessment of the financial circumstances of individuals who have arrived. If they assess them to be in financial hardship, they provide some funding to those individuals.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Like a fortnight’s rent.

CHAIR: One last question, Senator Shoebridge.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: The only assistance that you can point to that the Commonwealth has given to people who have fled genocide and left their entire worldly possessions behind is the equivalent of a fortnight’s rent for a unit in Sydney. Is that what the Commonwealth has provided these people?

Mr Kiley : That’s the assistance that’s been provided through the Red Cross.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Minister, do you accept that that’s woefully inadequate for people who have fled such circumstances and obviously will have such need?

Senator Watt: I’m confident that the department is applying a compassionate attitude to this terrible circumstance.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: Surely a compassionate attitude would be to offer the same benefits, the same basic supports, to people fleeing the war in Gaza as were offered to people fleeing the war in Ukraine, which is access to income support and access to Medicare. Why has your government not provided that same level of basic decency to Palestinians fleeing the genocide in Gaza as was offered to people fleeing Ukraine?

Senator Watt: Obviously I’m here representing the minister. I can’t give you a full explanation of the policy rationale, but it may be that departmental officials who have been involved in those discussions can do so.

Mr Kiley : It’s a measure that the government has made available for those who have arrived. They’re able to avail themselves of the bridging E visa, which I went through at the last estimates hearing, where there is no other lawful pathway for those individuals at the expiry of their visitor visa. That provides access to work rights and Medicare.

Senator SHOEBRIDGE: We will come back to those numbers tomorrow.

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