How we treat other people changes them, but even more so, how we treat other people changes us”.– Bryant McGill

I have previously described the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in these terms:

“As many of you would know I have been a harsh critic of the Immigration department or to give it its true title, Department of Immigration and Border Protection. A history of many years of bungles, inappropriate decisions and a culture of sheer unaccountability has made the department inured to any critical analysis of its status and decisions. What has led me to this position of criticism is its continued failure in respect of some of the following:

·         The Carabooda farms and their alleged exploitation of workers despite my having brought it to their attention for many years.

·         The exploitation of workers by the Maya Masala chain here in WA. The story was written up by Grant Taylor in The West Australian newspaper.

·         Stories I have heard such as are covered in this article:

·         Finally there are the issues dealing with disability discrimination in our immigration system. These are covered in a couple of articles I have written – here and here.

All of this has led me to be concerned with the way the department deals with its charter. I have lost all confidence in its ability to deal with the lives of people wanting to come to this country.”

As though I needed any further proof of the department’s culture of complete insensitivity and, in some cases, blatant bias against people with disability yet another case of this has come to light. It was referred to me via a couple of sources within the disability sector.

Let me set the scene for you:

Dora is a PhD student at one of our Universities. She has come here from Costa Rica. She has a mother and a brother continuing to live in Costa Rica. Her brother has Down syndrome. This is the essence of the email that triggered this whole story:

Hi *****, I wanted to contribute a story about my brother with Down syndrome (DS). I am originally from Costa Rica and have been doing my PhD in Australia for almost four years. My mother and brother with DS wanted to come and visit. I bought tickets from Nov. 12 through to Dec. 14. They submitted all paperwork for visas on Oct.3rd. On Nov. 2 my mother got her visa but they asked for ‘medical exams’ for my brother. So my mom paid for these exams and an Australian Government approved doctor to fill out a questionnaire about his condition. Then she filled out another form saying he was coming with her. We submitted this end of last week and seeing that time was getting short we paid around $800 to change their departure until Nov. 22. Yesterday we received yet another message from Immigration saying that they require: an evaluation “from treating doctor/specialist regarding Down’s syndrome. Please provide a report addressing history, physical examination findings, diagnosis, management needs for the next five years and prognosis for the next 5-10 years. Please comment on functional and work capacity.” This ‘treating doctor’s CV has to be approved by the Australian Government. I find all of these pre-requisites for a tourist visa appalling, and they are assuming that he is going to come to Australia to use the health system or something. My family bought the necessary travel insurance. This whole thing has been very upsetting and even the United States of America which has a history of unfriendly policies towards people from developing countries has NEVER discriminated against him in this way. Anyways, I thought it would be a good idea to share this experience. Needless to say, they are not coming to Australia and instead will travel to the US and spend their money there.”

The timeline of events is reproduced below:

Tickets were purchased at the end of July approximately.

They began the visa process early September and had to renew passports.

They sent the paperwork for their visas on October 3rd since the trip was planned for departure from Los Angeles on the Nov. 9 and arrival here in Australia on Nov.12. They say tourist visas processed from ‘high risk’ countries take one month.

My mother received her tourist visa around November 2nd, but they requested additional tests from my brother, including chest x-ray, blood tests and a questionnaire to be filled by a panel doctor credited by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection in Costa Rica. My mother took my brother to take care of all of this and paid around $400. She and the doctor found the questionnaire to be filled out invasive. All the tests were sent Nov 5. My mother called the embassy in Toronto to ask how long it would take them to process because the trip was upon us. The woman said they could not answer before two business days. Additionally, my mother was told to fill out another form to say that she was accompanying my brother and that he was not travelling alone. I think this was form 956.  This was completed and sent on Nov. 6. Seeing that we would not make it to the original flights we changed all departure dates. The new departure dates were leave Costa Rica to LA on the 20th and then take the plane to Australia on the 22nd.

On Tuesday the 10th of November we received another notice from DIBP, now asking for additional information from the Medical Officer of the Commonwealth. They were asked to go to the panel clinic again. This time they were asking for an evaluation “from treating doctor/specialist regarding Down’s Syndrome. Please provide a report addressing history, physical examination findings, diagnosis, management needs for the next five years and prognosis for the next 5-10 years. Please comment on functional and work capacity.” This ‘treating doctor”‘s CV has to be approved by the Australian Government.  Since there are no approved treating doctors in Costa Rica, they would have had to find a doctor, send his CV and wait for evaluation from the DIBP. They were told this could take up to 40 days. Finding these requirements to be excessive and out of proportion with what we were requesting, a simple tourist visa for a month at most, we decided to withdraw the applications and cancel all of these plans.

A list of costs incurred (some are approximate, I am waiting for the exact amount from my mother):

Tickets to the United States: US$1366.78 (total for both) This does not include the US$400 we had to pay to change the departure date. We later had to change again because my mother did not want to stay by herself with my brother in LA for three weeks. It would have been very expensive and she doesn’t drive in the US. This cost US$400.

Tickets to Australia: US$2100 (for both) This does not include the AU$400 I had to pay to change the flights to Nov. 22nd. I recovered around $1600 from this from the airline upon cancellation, for a total loss of about US$800 (allowing for exchange rate differences).

Medical exams: Blood tests, chest x-rays, visit to the doctor about US$400. Second visit to the doctor about US$120.

What have we seen here from the Department?

Let’s summarise the issues:

1.      The person is applying for a tourist visa to visit his sister

2.      He has down syndrome

3.      He is entirely independent as to the normal activities of living are concerned.

4.      He has travelled many times to the US with his mum

5.      He is 31 years old

6.      He is going to be accompanied to Australia by his mum

7.      He has provided return tickets with his application.

8.      His mother’s visa has been granted and his has not

9.      They have already had to change their bookings once costing them a lot of money

10.  He has had second visits to the doctor to satisfy the department’s requirements for information

Let me now reiterate some of the concerns that have been raised by the sister:

1.      The department has asked for medical history and prognosis for the next 5 to 10 years and management needs for the next five years. He is coming to Australia for one month!

2.      The questions that have been raised by the department are stereotypical, invasive and incredibly humiliating.

3.      Dora (the sister) has expressed the view to me that she thought that it would have been harder to get into the US yet she has never had an issue there for her brother

4.      She is also reconsidering her own future here. If so we would have lost a very bright talent who is highly qualified and that continues the “brain drain” that we have talked about. And we want to be the “Clever Country”?

  1. Is the department in breach of the UN Convention? In particular the following article refers: “Discrimination on the basis of disability” means any distinction, exclusion or restriction on the basis of disability which has the purpose or effect of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal basis with others, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field. It includes all forms of discrimination, including denial of reasonable accommodation;” And there are a host of other articles that they could also be in breach of.

6.      The ‘treating doctor’s CV has to be approved by the Australian Government.  Since there are no approved treating doctors in Costa Rica, they would have had to find a doctor, send his CV and wait for evaluation from the DIBP. They were told this could take up to 40 days. Finding these requirements to be excessive and out of proportion with what we were requesting, a simple tourist visa for a month at most, we decided to withdraw the applications and cancel all of these plans.

This highlights the complete unaccountability of this department and its procedures. To treat this person with Down syndrome in this fashion is completely unacceptable. The fact that the US has allowed Dora’s brother to visit there regularly indicates that they do not regard him as a risk. Yet our department start from the basis that anyone coming to this country as a visitor WANTS to overstay their visa. What an incredibly blinkered view of the world.

We can but hope that somewhere there is someone who will launch an inquiry into the “culture” of this department.

Addendum: After some discussions between Dora and myself, she sent me this material via email. I attach it here to emphasise the costs that have been incurred by this family:

“Hi Suresh, attached several receipts and documents. Receipts for expenditures for lab tests, x rays, doctor’s appointment, and payment for a hotel in Los Angeles where they were going to stay for a night before flying to Melbourne. The exchange rate is 538 colones (local currency) for one US$.

Blood tests: US$142

Chest x-ray: US$90

Doctor’s appointment: $111.50

Hotel: $111

There is also a proof of ownership of properties in Costa Rica, to show that my family has ties in the country and does not intend to stay here. Of course we had to pay for a lawyer to show it is legit but I don’t think my mom sent how much she paid for that. She also made several phone calls to the Embassy in Canada. 

For the flights I had paid US$2100 plus the change of around US$280. I recovered $1628 from Qantas. They charged a US$500 cancellation fee. So a total loss of around US$780. Then we also changed the ticket for their flight to the US, which cost $447.

So in total we are talking of at least US$1680. I don’t include the additional US$400 my mom paid because we had to re-arrange their trip to Los Angeles since initially they were not planning to stay there, it was only their departure/arrival point to and from Australia. In order not to lose the money I had paid for those tickets to the United States we had to come up with an alternative holiday plan for them in Los Angeles. My mother said your article was on point. She also sent a letter in Spanish, which pretty much sums up what I told you but in her own style. If you would like to read it I would translate it.”