Refugees Suffer In The Community Too


Asylum Seekers living in the community on bridging visas are among Australia’s most destitute and impoverished people, according to a new report from the Australian Red Cross.

The inaugural Vulnerability Report was launched at Parliament House on 26 June and highlights the difficult living conditions faced by asylum seekers on bridging visas who are being processed in the community. The case studies are consistently grim: “[F]our of us are living in the same room … we don’t have much money left after we pay for food or clothes or transport … we can’t afford food,” writes one unnamed asylum seeker.

Australia is currently struggling to respond to the political and financial implications of increasing asylum seeker arrivals. Immigration detention centres are at capacity and they are a drain on the public purse, costing $772.17 million to operate over the 2010-2011 financial year, according to a March 2012 report from the Joint Select Committee on Australia’s Immigration Detention Network.

Community-based processing is 90 per cent cheaper than immigration detention facilities (IDFs), according to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. The Department of Immigration continues to rapidly expand this program. Since 25 November 2011, 19,284 boat arrivals have been granted bridging visas, a spokesman for the department told NM. There is an important distinction between community-based processing and community detention. In community detention, asylum seekers live in a department-approved detention facility. Asylum seekers in community-based processing are granted a minimal living allowance and make their own arrangements in the community.

Once in the community, bridging visa holders are referred by the department to external service providers for health and welfare support. With an initial grant of six weeks on a transitional support program, individuals and families must negotiate survival in the community. They receive payments that amount to 89 per cent of the Department of Human Services' Special Benefit payment or Newstart – less than $500 a fortnight.

The case studies in the Red Cross report are telling: “After paying the rent, we have $35 left for two weeks…we are eating noodles and eggs … normally one meal a day…” Families have to budget on this basic living allowance, ensuring their payments cover rent, food, transport, clothing, medication and other basics.

One family recently released into the community found it impossible to pay $5.90 for their child’s medication. They told the author of the report they would see the week out with only bread and jam for the children. The cost of living has led many to turn to local charity or support groups for the basics, such as food and warm clothing, and homelessness is a constant risk.

Without work rights, these families are unable to improve their situation, trapping them in a world of poverty, destitution and declining mental health. Unable to work or to afford the travel costs associated with public transport to and from community organisations, many remain isolated within their homes. Homelessness, poverty, hunger and illness are increasingly prevalent.

How did this situation arise? On 7 May 2013, then Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor announced families would be released from immigration detention on to bridging bisas in the community. The “No Advantage” principle would still apply for all who arrived in Australia after 13 August 2012.

“No Advantage” has left many asylum seekers without work rights, unable to have their protection claims processed or have their families join them through a “Split Family” visa pathway if they are deemed to be a genuine refugee. Advocacy groups like the Refugee Action Coalition say the fear of permanent separation from their families may be responsible for the increase in women and children boarding boats to Australia in search of asylum. As the boats have not stopped, the department has had to rethink community processing for all asylum seekers, regardless of age or gender.

Dr Graham Thom, board member of the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney, told New Matilda he is “seeing a significant increase in homelessness” since the introduction of families and children into community processing. With the first groups of families and children entering the community on bridging visas in mid-May, only two weeks after the Immigration Minister’s announcement, service providers were unprepared.

The sector, “already stretched to the limit”, in Thom’s words, has had to fill the gaps. Heading in to the coldest weeks of winter, asylum seekers in the community continue to battle without appropriate clothing, bedding or resources.

Previously, all families were released from detention centres into community detention. The asylum seekers were housed within the community, and able to access community services, but because they were essentially still “in detention” they didn't pay rent or bills, nor were they expected to source their own accommodation.

“The Department [of Immigration and Citizenship]took a certain level of duty of care [in community detention]”, Thom says, by recognising the unique needs of families, and ensuring a basic standard of living was met. This duty of care has not been mirrored community-based processing. While the move to the community has been difficult for single men, “for families … it is even worse”.

The Red Cross report recommends the federal government rethink the living allowance afforded to community-based asylum seekers, proposing it be “commensurate with their needs and … no less than that provided to other people with similar needs in the Australian community.”

The first groups of families released on to bridging visas are nearing the end of their six week transitional support period. Homelessness is a real risk. One caseworker told NM about a single mother who spent a large portion of her living allowance on transport to and from unsuccessful house inspections.

A $300 per week, one bedroom apartment in the Western Sydney suburbs, will still leave them less than $10 a day to survive. The mother continues to submit unsuccessful rental applications, with one agent rejecting them due to concerns their living allowance could barely cover the rent.

Advocacy groups are worried. “If you’re going to release people in to the community, it has to be with appropriate supports and work rights…[otherwise]you’re heaping misery on top of a group who have already fled horrific circumstances,” Thom says. These families have the added stress of an uncertain future, and the inability to work to help support their everyday costs.

Advocates have always argued community processing, rather than mandatory detention, is the more humane way to respond to Australia’s asylum seekers. Yet community processing alone will not address concerns of inhumanity in asylum seeker processing policy unless the program includes appropriate living conditions.

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