Sivan describes himself as a "Tamil gentleman". With his combed-down hair, tucked-in shirt and polished brown shoes, he looks every part the white collar worker. Except no one will give him work.
"I am a person with degrees and qualifications. I have been given work rights, but I can’t find work — not even part-time work," he tells me.
Sivan arrived in Australia in March 2009. He applied for asylum promptly and was granted permission to work. Compared to other asylum seekers, he was lucky to get that far. Under the old "45-day rule" that was in force from July 1997 to July 2009, asylum seekers who applied for protection more than 45 days after arrival were denied access to employment. Some spent years in the community without an income, relying on charity to survive.
Things improved for people in that situation on 1 July 2009, when the Rudd Government abolished the 45-day rule. Its media release stated this would "alleviate the burden on Australian community and religious groups who provide support to asylum seekers". Now, asylum seekers who apply for protection after more than 45 days are in the same situation as Sivan, supposedly free to find work and support themselves.
Except it isn’t that easy. Although most asylum seekers on bridging visas now have work rights, the majority are still unemployed or underemployed. Caz Coleman, director of Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project (ASP), estimates that around 90 per cent of the agency’s clients have work rights, but fewer than 20 per cent are employed. As a result, despite the law change, charities continue to bear the brunt of providing financial help and essential services.
Some reasons for the high levels of unemployment are common to all migrants. Limited access to transport, poor English and a lack of understanding about Australia’s employment system are barriers many foreigners face when looking for work.
Other reasons are more acute for asylum seekers than for other migrants, as some have been denied work rights for so long that they have lost skills and confidence. "Long-term unemployment makes people long-term unemployed," explains Sheelagh Purdon, co-ordinator of the Employment Casework Team at the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre (ASRC).
Yet other reasons for this are unique to asylum seekers. According to ASRC campaign co-ordinator Pamela Curr, asylum seekers suffer further from having been subjected to a smear campaign. Under the previous government, companies "were constantly [warned about]the risk of employing ‘illegals’ and about the need to check that people had a permanent visa. The backlash is that employers are nervous about asylum seekers."
Another persistent myth is that all asylum seekers are only in Australia for the short term. "There’s the perception that asylum seekers might not be around for a long period of time when our experience is that 80 to 90 per cent of people will get permanent residence," says Bill Haebich, account manager at ASRC.
The way asylum seekers’ visas are managed often reinforces this perception. "There is a particular problem with Bridging Visa Es [a common type held by many asylum seekers]because they have to be renewed at regular intervals," explains Purdon. Employers see this condition and assume the asylum seeker is only in Australia temporarily. But the reality is that some asylum seekers have been on this type of visa for more than five years.
Sivan is sure that his temporary visa has been an obstacle to gaining employment. He once applied for interpreting work but was told that since he did not have a permanent visa the employer was not in a position to take him on. "It is very difficult to find full-time work on a bridging visa," he says.
The problem is made worse because he can’t get his qualifications accredited. Despite being a trained lawyer, he needs to complete a compulsory subject in order to practice law in Australia. But, due to his bridging visa, he is unable to register for it.
Stephanie Mendis, a casework co-ordinator at asylum seeker support agency Hotham Mission ASP, recounts a similar story. An asylum seeker who trained as a nurse couldn’t do her year-long hospital placement because she was on a series of three-month visas. She is now working as a cleaner.
This example illustrates another trend among asylum seekers. Those who do find work are often employed "at a skill level significantly lower than work undertaken before coming to Australia", according to a 2009 skills audit of asylum seekers in Melbourne. Although the respondents held diverse occupations overseas, in Australia it was common for them to work as kitchenhands, cleaners and labourers.
This sort of employment obviously isn’t suitable for everyone. "I can’t do heavy physical work at my age," says Sivan. As well, he is aware that his education and experience are doing no one any good if they are not put to use. "I am a lawyer so I shouldn’t be doing an unskilled job."
Yet even unskilled work is out of reach for many asylum seekers who are denied access to federally funded traineeships, apprenticeships and employment services. The Rudd Government wants to appear "hard" on asylum seekers and giving them financial help or Centrelink benefits is seen as politically untenable. But advocacy groups say they aren’t asking for handouts, just necessities. An employment service is one such basic need. After all, what use is the right to work without the training and support to find it?
With no government employment service for asylum seekers, this burden falls on charities. The ASRC, for example, supports asylum seekers with resume-writing, job applications and training. Other church and humanitarian organisations are collaborating on a pilot project to provide a similar service. But since a large number of asylum seekers now find themselves in this position, the demand is high.
The pilot project emphasises early intervention. "The sooner we have people in some sort of employment the better the outcome for the long term," says Purdon. The pilot project’s director, Caz Coleman, says empowering asylum seekers to provide for themselves reduces their reliance on welfare and saves the Government money in the long run.
Amid these concerns, charities such as Hotham Mission and ASRC are keen to stress their approval of the Rudd Government’s changes to asylum seeker policy. Refugee advocates are also grateful for the abolishment of the 45-day rule, which Coleman says "was a long time coming".
Sivan shares this gratitude for the country that has given him shelter. "I appreciate the Government of Australia and what they’re doing for refugees. We’re very happy to be here," he says.
Yet the current system is far from perfect. "There are a number of things needed to connect work rights to actual work for people," says Mendis. One suggestion is giving asylum seekers access to basic support, especially housing and employment services. Another is printing a statement on bridging visas explaining that the asylum seeker has ongoing work rights.
Sivan’s shirt has a pen poking out of the breast pocket. His pants are neat, his shoes shiny. He looks like he belongs in an office. At the moment, though, this white-collar worker’s skills and experience are going to waste.
*Sivan’s name has been changed.
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