By: Saba Vasefi
Lack of visas mean even those who finish high school and win scholarships can find themselves barred from further studies
After overcoming significant hardships, refugee kids are no longer detained on Nauru.
But some who are now adolescents continue to experience the punitive effects, legal limbo and structural violence of Australia’s deterrence system.
Despite their time on Nauru resulting in severe educational gaps, many of these teenage refugees have demonstrated significant academic success in Australia. They have been allowed to complete their high school education, but now find themselves unable to continue with their studies because of their lack of visas.
Instead, their residence determination (also known as community detention) bans them from working or studying at Australian universities.
Australian universities provide subsidised places for domestic students or full-fee places for international students. Refugee students on temporary visas – such as bridging visa Es or temporary protection visas – are categorised as international students and are not eligible for subsidised commonwealth-supported places.
This means refugee adolescents face significant barriers to accessing tertiary education, even when they are legally permitted to study, and must rely on university scholarships to be able to afford it.
In 2018, Sukirtha Krishnalingam, a 19-year-old Sri Lankan refugee was medevaced from Nauru to Melbourne due to her critical health condition. She completed the Victorian Certificate of Education in 2021 and was offered a full-tuition scholarship to study a double degree in commerce-arts at Deakin University, a scholarship to RMIT University as well as an offer from Monash University.
She had to decline all these opportunities because she is subject to ministerial residential determination and is barred from study.
Under the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, refugees and asylum seekers are not included as an equity group. Dr Karen Dunwoodie, the deputy director at the Centre for Refugee Employment, Advocacy, Training and Education at Deakin University, says when the universities consider admission based on equity criteria, they tend to focus on student deficiencies and fail to recognise the value of a refugee’s prior qualifications, skills and experiences.
She explains that some higher education institutions claim they do not have the resources to customise their services for a small cohort of refugee students, such as providing one-on-one case management with specialist trauma-informed health professionals.
“We have a long way to go in recognising the distinct needs of students from refugee and seeking-asylum backgrounds despite the increasing number of Australian universities offering specific scholarships for this cohort. Classification as an international student and homogenisation of support services, compounds the effects of an often-difficult student journey, prior to enrolling as well as during their tertiary studies,” Dunwoodie says.
Displaced youth’s multifaceted challenges are evident in the circumstances of Iranian refugee sisters Alma*, 19, and Anashid*, 21, whose exposure to domestic violence and family separation prevented them from completing the HSC.
Alma and Anashid were six and seven years old when their parents split in Iran. After their father remarried, they fled persecution in Iran and arrived on Christmas Island in 2013. The family was initially transferred to Nauru, but they were moved to Darwin detention after their stepmother became pregnant.
In 2016, their family was placed in community detention in Melbourne. The sustained stress on the family caused conflict between the sisters and their stepmother; in 2019 their father received an apprehended violence order and was sent back to detention. The sisters then lived with foster carers.
This family arrangement has significantly impacted Alma’s mental health, resulting in her being admitted twice to a mental health unit in a hospital. The mental health clinician reported Alma’s symptoms manifested in restricted intake, school refusal and suicidal attempts. She “feels that it is not worth having a life if she doesn’t have any freedom of choices”.
Despite the setbacks, her ongoing determination was recognised and she received the assistant principal’s award in year 12.
Even when students are supported by powerful advocates, the system can be impossible to navigate. Dozens of teachers and scholars, including the Greens’ spokesperson for education, Senator Mehreen Faruqi, urged the immigration minister to grant 20-year-old Iranian refugee a bridging visa that would allow her to study or receive a university scholarship. To date, the requests have remained unanswered.
In 2018, the federal court ordered that the Iraninan refugee, accompanied by her mother and sister “on an urgent basis”, should be transferred from Nauru to Australia for her medical treatment.
In the case of 21-year-old Iranian refugee Armin Aslani Faal, he was forced to choose between joining his family for resettlement in the US or completing his degree in Australia where he fought to be allowed to study.
Armin’s family were transferred from offshore detention on Nauru to a Brisbane immigration detention centre in 2014 for his and his mother’s medical treatment. For the next three years, they remained in various immigration detention centres in Australia. After their mental health deteriorated, they were released to community detention in 2016. In Sydney, Armin achieved academic success at school and received prestigious awards. In 2018, he received several offers and scholarships from the University of Technology Sydney, Macquarie University, Western Sydney University and a residency at the University of Wollongong.
Armin’s self-advocacy triumphed when the minister of immigration, in an unusual act, used his ministerial discretion and granted him a bridging visa with the right to enrol in a bachelor of pharmacy at the University of Sydney in 2018, while the rest of his family remained barred from study.
Despite being in the final years of his course, his family has been given minimal time to accept the US resettlement offers last month which would mean Armin’s fight for his education rights and four years’ of education will be wasted. He says he will have no choice but to start his educational journey from scratch due to the different pharmacy course requirements in the US.
This month, a letter was sent to the immigration minister from 479 members of the Refugee Education Special Interest Group, a network of Australian and international academics and educators. It calls on the minister to facilitate access to tertiary education for refugees subject to residence determinations, through, for example, issuing them bridging visas with study rights.
Dr Sara Dehm, one of the letter’s co-authors along with Dr Sally Baker, says international law recognises that everyone has a right to an education, including refugees. This right extends to higher education, which ought to be accessible to all. The discriminatory policy prevents young refugees from having the same opportunities as other Australian high school graduates.
The western gaze might judge policies in other countries such as the Taliban’s gender segregation in Afghanistan or Iran’s systematic exclusion of students who don’t comply with the state’s hardline values.
However, an exclusionary strategy is executed in Australia on these displaced youths as well.
- Dr Saba Vasefi is a scholar-journalist who writes on the human impacts of Australia’s immigration and border policies
*The names have been changed to protect identities