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Natasha Marsh: A Nightmare: a tale of Australia’s immigration system

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Last month, the Department of Immigration’s decision to send 88 Coptic Christians to Egypt was reversed due to media attention and public pressure. Friends, parishioners and associates are hoping for the same result for the Lee family of Melbourne who, in a shock decision announced on Friday 21 July, have been given until August 3 to leave the country.

After nine and a half years of seeking permanent residency in Australia, the hardworking South Korean family was advised that their Ministerial Intervention had been rejected – and that they were being sent back to South Korea.

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The family of five is devastated.

The Catholic Weekly met the Lees in their home in the leafy suburb of Glen Waverly, Melbourne, just hours before they heard the news.

The father David, 53, runs a cleaning business (Lux Cleaning Service) and his wife Jessica, 51, is a piano teacher. Their sons Daniel, 23, and Brian, 21, are both studying science, with Daniel specialising in Medicinal Chemistry. The youngest, Richard, 11, is in Grade 6 at the school across the road.

The family had been anxiously waiting results of the Ministerial Intervention since May 15, when they first received the news that they were being deported.

“We are no harm to the Government. We are not criminals,” said Daniel, “We have been almost living here ten years. I feel this is really cruel for them to just ask us to go back to South Korea.”

The family have spent nearly a decade putting their energy, and over $1 million dollars, to pass the mercurial ‘criteria’ of the Immigration Department—including running a successful Korean restaurant in the heart of Melbourne’s CBD, ‘Coreanhouse’, for three years.

Now, the family will have to start over, with less than nothing.

“We don’t have any connections, we don’t have any friends, we don’t have any house to live in, we just have nothing,” said Bryan.

“All that effort, paying university fees and school fees and it will come to nothing,” he said.

The boys will also have to do compulsory military service for two years, putting them further behind.

“I don’t mind doing the service,” said Bryan “but there is actually a threat of war in South Korea.”

Richard was “still in nappies” when he came to Australia at the age of two. Australia is all he knows. During the interview, he was doing his best not to cry.

“I’m not really a Korean person,” he said.

The story of the Lees – regardless of where you sit on the border security debate – exposes the bureaucratic behemoth that is the Department of Immigration. It is not unlike Charles Dickens’ satirical “Circumlocution Office” in Little Dorrit, where paperwork goes to die.

“They are not treated like people, they are treated like numbers,” said Fr Patrick Jackson assistant priest of the St Christopher’s Parish, Syndal, where the Lees are parishioners.

“They are regular Catholic church-goers, hard-working and sincere.  Don’t we want solid citizens who already are contributing to Australia?” he said.

The family have “no idea” why they are being sent back to South Korea. Last September, they were asked to complete Health and Police checks, which is usually a sign of a positive outcome.

Yet in May they received the letter to say that their case, “does not meet the requirement of the Minister’s Intervention.”

Since migrating to Australia in 2008, the Lees have suffered a series of unfortunate events.

The family maintains it was swindled out of $100,000 by their first ‘lawyer’, an individual, also Korean, who also posed as a friend to the-then recently-arrived migrants.  He advised the Lee family to pay $100,000 in ‘Contract Fees’ for a business that would be a stepping-stone for Permanent Residency. However, after nearly two years, the lawyer fled to South Korea and vanished with their savings.

It was not just the money, but the loss of almost two precious years out of the four they had to start and operate a “viable business” making $200,000 per annum, as required for a Business Visa.

They sold everything they owned in South Korea (worth around $500,000) and worked tirelessly, sometimes seven days a week. Still wary from their experience with their first lawyer, and not knowing “who to trust”, David lodged the Visa application himself.

It was denied in January 2012, due to a six-week gap in documentation of business activity. David had evidence of his commute, paying wages, and even conversations, but apparently this was not enough to prove “every day management.”

The Lees hired a MARA (Migration Agents Registration Authority) approved immigration lawyer, Max Moon, to re-lodge the Business Visa application with the Migration Review (MR) Tribunal.

They had just two weeks to gather every piece of evidence they could find to prove David’s “active involvement” during that six-week period. It was a gruelling time and David felt the responsibility for the failed claim.

“We couldn’t sleep for two weeks,” said Daniel. “My dad had a retina detachment, because he had to make so many documents.”

The MR Tribunal accepted the documents, but there was another problem.

Richard, the youngest, was having trouble at school. The city-based restaurant was placing a strain on the family, mostly due to the DI’s requirements of a $200,000 annual turnover. At the advice of Moon, they sold ‘Coreanhouse’ and focussed on their other business, Lux Cleaning Service.

“The lawyer gave the wrong legal advice,” said Daniel “we were supposed to operate the business (‘Coreanhouse’) continuously until the decision was made from the MR Tribunal.”

Although MARA admitted they gave the “wrong advice”, the Lee family suffered the consequences, and their Visa was, once again, rejected.

At this point they only had two options: to take the decision to the federal court, or to apply for a Ministerial Intervention.

“We couldn’t do federal court,” said Daniel “We already lost too much money operating business, paying lawyers, translation fees and everything, we couldn’t afford [$90,000] for the court.”

With a new lawyer, Karen Wong, the Lees awaited Immigration Minister, Peter Dutton’s decision, and were dismayed to hear, months later that; “it is not in the public interest to intervene”.

“Other than that, there was no reason at all,” said Daniel “And when we asked the Migration Office, they said they would prefer not to say.”

“We operated a business. We bought money into the country. We are not criminals. I just don’t know why,” he said.

“We have tried our best. We actually did what the Government asked us to do by fulfilling the requirements. But we are facing this situation,” he said.

“Where’s the justice?” asked Brian.

For months, David has been suffering from depression and anxiety and Jessica describes she is waking in the middle of the night in “cold sweats”. Every night they pray to God that the decision will be reversed.

Consider supporting the Lees by signing the petition, launched on the families’ behalf by St Christopher’s Parish, Syndal, here.

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