Home Affairs department ‘accidentally’ sent letters telling asylum seekers to leave Australia, minister says

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The Home Affairs Minister has said hundreds of letters “accidentally” sent to refugees and asylum seekers telling them to get out of the country were not appropriate and were sent without her knowledge.

The letters were posted and emailed to at least 490 refugees and asylum seekers in September and October, many of whom are living in the community on bridging visas.

Many are hoping for permanent settlement in Australia, having already spent years locked up in offshore detention.

One recipient was Kurdish man Farhad Bandesh, who said he boarded a boat to Australia almost a decade ago to flee persecution in Iran.

“Settlement in Australia is not an option for you … You are expected to progress other migration options,” his letter stated.

Mr Bandesh’s letter included a three-week deadline to “advise the department of your third country resettlement plan”.

Mr Bandesh — whose seven years in detention included stints at Christmas Island, Manus Island, the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation and hotels in Melbourne — said he was stunned when he received the letter.

“I felt trauma again, honestly, because they were trying to move me to another place,” he said.

The ABC understands many of the recipients, including Mr Bandesh, have not had any follow-up contact from authorities.

‘Dear << INSERT NAME >>’

The ABC has seen several versions of the letters and emails, which tell recipients to consider resettlement in New Zealand, go to another country, or voluntarily return home.

A page with text, with the Department of Home Affairs letterhead
A screenshot of one of the letters, sent to asylum seekers.(Supplied)

Some correspondence was personally addressed to asylum seekers, while other people were sent draft emails addressed to “Dear << INSERT NAME >>”.

Some included the line: “It is expected that you cooperate with the department in regards to your departure from Australia.”

The letters were authored by Alana Sullivan, the first assistant secretary of the department’s People Smuggling Policy and Implementation Taskforce.

Weeks after the first Home Affairs letters were sent, Minister Clare O’Neil’s office manager emailed angry local voters a statement from the minister.

Clare O'Neil wearing a speaks while looking at the camera with a neutral expression. She wears a lilac blazer.
Clare O’Neil says the letters were not appropriate or constructive.(ABC News: Nicholas Haggarty)

“…this letter was not sent with my authority or knowledge. It was sent out in error by the Home Affairs Department,” Ms O’Neil’s statement said.

“I had not seen the letter before it was accidentally sent out, and I hadn’t asked for it to be sent out.

“In fact, I do not think the letter was appropriate or constructive in any way, in particular because this matter involves vulnerable people.

“I have asked the department to refrain from sending out letters of this nature, and to change its communications strategy with regard to this issue.”

However, the directives in the letters are consistent with Australia’s stance on boat arrivals, which under successive Labor and Coalition policies dictates those who arrived by boat after July 2013 are not able to settle permanently in Australia.

Resettlement deals have been struck with the United States and New Zealand for a small number of refugees.

A Home Affairs spokesperson said the correspondence was sent to “individuals temporarily in Australia who do not currently have a third country migration pathway, have withdrawn from a resettlement process or whom the Department did not have details of a resettlement pathway”.

The department also disputed Ms O’Neil’s claim that the letters were sent by accident.

“The letter was not sent in error and was part of the department’s approach to identifying transitory persons needing additional support to engage with third country migration options,” the spokesperson said.

Speaking to media after the ABC’s story was published on Thursday, acting Prime Minister Richard Marles said: “The home affairs minister has spoken — she has made it clear these letters were inappropriately sent and it won’t happen again.”

Boat arrivals remain in limbo

Nos Hosseini, a lawyer, migration agent and Iranian community activist, said she was aware of refugees and asylum seekers in New South Wales and Western Australia who had also received the letters from Home Affairs.

“People have reached the conclusion that they’re not welcome here. They feel like it’s a slap in the face, considering the contribution some of them have made here in Australia,” she said.

A man sitting on a chair smiles as he pats a dog on the head
Mr Bandesh has hopes to stay in Australia long-term.(ABC News: Kristian Silva)

Mr Bandesh has been considered an “unauthorised maritime arrival”  because he arrived by boat after July 2013. The status renders him ineligible to stay in Australia permanently.

However, he said he decided to ignore the government’s request to leave and was not interested in resettlement programs to the United States or New Zealand.

“I’ve built a life here. Australian people are my big family,” he said.

“I left my family behind once, and I don’t want to lose a family again.”

Mr Bandesh was released from detention and placed on a bridging visa two years ago. He has since forged a career as an artist and musician, and pays tax from his day job as a factory worker in Melbourne.

In a sign that he has long-term intentions to stay, Mr Bandesh bought a dog and started a wine and gin business with his partner, Jenell Quinsee.

While Labor made a pre-election promise to abolish temporary protection visas and shift eligible refugees onto permanent visas, Mr Bandesh has been told by the department that the reforms will not apply to him.

“It’s really, really hard to even think about the future,” Mr Bandesh said.

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