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Front cover of ASRC's Locked Out, featuring collage of peopel seeking asylum
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Destitute and locked out: daily challenges faced by people seeking asylum

Author: John Hanson

How do people seeking asylum get through the day? In 2010, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) published two reports, Locked Out and Destitute and Uncertain, that look at their harsh and often traumatic struggle to meet their basic needs. Locked Out focuses on homelessness, while Destitute and Uncertain looks at different aspects of destitution. Both reports paint a confronting picture of how the most vulnerable experience life in Australia.

Mental health

Many people seeking asylum come to Australia with severe trauma. They have fled violence, war, persecution and even torture. Their precarious future while their claims are being decided only makes their mental health worse. Research shows that psychological disorders disproportionately affect those who have sought asylum.

While they may have access to Medicare, community health care centres and community mental health practitioners are already overworked. This means there are long delays, which do not meet the urgent needs of people seeking asylum. Most mental health practitioners also do not know of the specific issues commonly faced by people seeking asylum, including the complex legal process on which their futures rest. Mental health practitioners need to be educated on the specific needs of people seeking asylum, and their practices adjusted.

When a person is in crisis or at high risk of suicide, an initial response may be provided by the Crisis Assessment and Treatment Team (CATT) or emergency departments. However, there is no ongoing support, and the burden of care falls mainly to the under resourced non-governmental sector.

Physical health

As with mental health, the journey to Australia leaves many in poor physical health. This is made worse by the new stresses of seeking asylum.

Many cannot afford medical costs, such as glasses and pharmaceuticals, on their limited income. While programs such as the ASRC Health Program support those who fall through financial gaps, this reflects the inadequacy of mainstream services to cater for people seeking asylum.

Though Medicare rights mean people seeking asylum can see GPs, many of these do not know about the specific needs of people seeking asylum or their entitlements to medical support. Letters from doctors may be essential for being accepted into government-funded programs. However, even if they are willing, many community GPs do not know about the process of writing these letters


People seeking asylum face many challenges in searching for housing. Yet, in 2008, the Federal Government’s major strategy on addressing homelessness, The Road Home, failed to include people seeking asylum.

People seeking asylum find it difficult to access emergency housing. Most services refuse housing because they believe people seeking asylum will be difficult to exit because of their lack of income. In one case, a pregnant asylum seeker had to present three times at a housing service before she was seen.

The Victorian Government has taken a positive step by requiring that health services see all people seeking asylum needing emergency medical attention. A similar mandate should apply to emergency housing. Whilst this is would not solve the problem, it would be an important step.

Similar problems exist with transitional housing, which involves three to eighteen months of housing and support services. This restricted access also makes it less likely that emergency housing services will take them on. Research suggests that this would be the most appropriate, dignified and safe option for those left uncertain of their most basic rights.


Though many people seeking asylum come to Australia with high hopes, they often find it difficult to get work. This can lead them to hopelessness and dependency.

The hurdles people seeking asylum face include:

  • Prior work and qualifications being unrecognised within Australia
  • No access to government-supported vocational study, Centrelink and employment services
  • Difficulties with English
  • No access to traineeships and apprenticeships
  • Very limited (or no) knowledge of Australian working and hiring culture.

People seeking asylum lack the basic vocational and educational rights of Australian citizens. When they struggle to find employment, the public narrative blames them. They are already disempowered by the process of seeking asylum. This is made worse if they cannot find work and have to rely on charity.

While some people seeking asylum do and will get work, this comes about through the advocacy of community groups and the goodwill of institutions. There is no government policy to support them into work.

Income support

The Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS) is a program which provides income support to some people seeking asylum. Although the scheme acknowledges the need to support people seeking asylum, the eligibility criteria are outdated and restrictive. For example, those who say they want to work are disqualified from the scheme.

If they do get accepted, they only get 89% of the Centrelink Special Benefit payment, leaving them below the poverty line. As well, they are not eligible if they have been refused by the Refugee Review Tribunal. This helps spread the myth that they are ‘failed’ seekers, and ignores the fact that many get protection at a later stage in the process.

The Community Assistance and Support (CAS) Program fills certain holes in ASAS. However, getting on to the program is another trial. Many are scared of the Department, which interviews clients. It is also unclear who is eligible. It is also a waste of the Program to immediately accept those leaving detention who are eligible for Australia’s settlement program, the Integrated Settlement and Support Strategy (IHSS).

Particularly vulnerable groups

Difficulties in getting housing especially affect single women and women suffering from domestic abuse. Single women often endure social isolation and destitution. There are few appropriate housing options, especially for those with children. Separation from their families can cause serious damage to their mental health.

Women experiencing domestic violence often feel they cannot leave violent relationships because of the legal, social and financial consequences. Even for those in such a vulnerable position, refuges remain largely closed to them because of their lack of exit options.

Young people seeking asylum face other challenges. Caught between the culture of Australia and that of their parents and former country, their doubt and anxieties are amplified. They are unable to plan for their future while they wait decisions on their status, and cannot afford higher education because they do not get government support. Mainstream youth services are willing but do not understand well the specific needs of young people seeking asylum.

Older people often face significant physical and psychological battles. They often suffer from health issues that make them dependent, and the loss of their country of origin adversely impacts their mental health. The report suggested that their suffering could be helped by immediately granting them Aged Parent visas, rather than leaving them destitute through the long wait for this visa.

Read Destitute and Uncertain
Read Locked Out

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