Adham has spent the last three years living off the goodwill of strangers. They have fed and housed him, and helped him find doctors and lawyers who will see him free of charge. Each day he has reported his presence to the authorities.
Adham is not a criminal; he is a refugee. In 2002, after three years in Western Australia’s Curtin detention centre, the softly spoken Middle Eastern man was suddenly released into the Australian community, without a visa or any legal status.
Adham was one of a number of immigration detention cases to be successfully tried through habeas corpus, under which the lawfulness of a person’s detention can be brought before a court.
He was not issued with any documentation on his release. "They just opened the gates and let me out into the desert," he said. His detention was found to be unlawful but he was now essentially a ‘non-person’, existing in the community on the charity of people he had only just met.
Three years on, Adham can finally say goodbye to his life in limbo. A month ago he was granted a Temporary Protection Visa by the Department of Immigration and he is now able to work to support himself. But according to a report released by the Network of Asylum Seeker Agencies Victoria (NASA-Vic), hundreds of other community-based asylum seekers are still in this dire situation – many have bridging visas but no work rights or access to Medicare. They rely on charity to survive.
The report, Seeking Safety, Not Charity, finds that Australia is breaching international human rights obligations by not providing community-based asylum seekers with the minimum requirements to ensure an adequate standard of living. It also finds that asylum seekers’ already significant health concerns are exacerbated by the stressful conditions under which they are forced to live. The report was put together using data from all major asylum seeker service providers in Victoria.
There are between 8000 and 10,000 asylum seekers living in the Australian community awaiting decisions on their refugee status. Along with people released from detention on legal or special-needs grounds, people who travel to Australia on visitor, student or business visas and then apply for asylum are often unable to work and have no access to public healthcare. This is because of legislation introduced in 1997, which dictates that anyone who applies for asylum 45 days or more after their arrival in Australia is denied work rights and is ineligible for Medicare.
In addition, asylum seekers who seek judicial review or ministerial intervention after their case has been rejected automatically lose their work rights and Medicare access.
People in these situations often hold what is called a Bridging Visa class E (BVE).
A spokesperson for the Minister for Immigration said that conditions attached to Bridging Visa class E were designed to act as a deterrent: "If people on a BVE are given access to work rights and Medicare there would be no incentive to depart," he said.
"[The BVE] is not designed to be a long-term visa option."
But according to Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne, there are people who live in the community on BVE for years, waiting for their cases to be assessed. "The fact is that for some people, even living in this state of beggary is preferable to going back to the country from which they fled, where they believe they will be killed or persecuted," she said.
At this stage it is unclear how recent changes to immigration legislation – under which all new cases will be guaranteed an initial determination within three months of application – will affect those asylum seekers already awaiting decisions in the community.
Curr describes the change as a double-edged sword. "On one level it’s great, because we have people waiting 12 months for a case determination, twelve months [to have their case heard by]the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT), then another twelve months to get a decision from RRT."
"However, if DIMIA don’t put extra resources into this process, and there’s pressure on the officers to give a decision, then the likely decision after three months is going to be ‘no’," she said.
"There is concern that cases that are complicated will not be looked at in detail."
Those long-term detainees to be released on Pending Removal Bridging Visas under the recent changes will have work and Medicare rights, but will have no certainty as to when they may be forced to leave Australia.
Only a small percentage of community-based asylum seekers are eligible for government-funded income or healthcare support under the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme, which is administered by the Red Cross, and many rely on a growing network of asylum seeker service providers for legal advice, pro bono medical services, food and counselling.
The Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC) in Sydney is just one of a number of charities providing welfare support to this group.
Dr Rosemary Ashton, a GP who volunteers with the ASC, said that the number one health issue affecting community-based asylum seekers is their mental well-being. "They can get basic services now, but what they don’t have is security. There is a high rate of depression and anxiety," she said.
Marion Cincotti, who runs the Bula Bula health clinic out of the ASRC in Melbourne, concurs, adding that asylum seekers already have a higher incidence of mental and physical health concerns than the broader public, because of past experiences including torture, and that the conditions attached to the BVE exacerbate existing health problems.
If Medicare ineligible asylum seekers require hospital treatment, they must negotiate to have set fees waived or discounted, as public hospitals do not receive funding to treat them and will seek to recover costs of up to $1,970 per day in the case of critical treatment.
Cincotti has come to an agreement with two major Melbourne hospitals to take pro bono referrals from the Bula Bula clinic. "It’s just that much easier of you have someone to advocate or you," she said.
Seeking Safety, Not Charity recommends that the conditions attached to Bridging Visa class E be amended to allow all asylum seekers living in the community work rights and access to basic health care until their refugee determination process has been fully completed.
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