Since August 2017, the Australian government has been forcing people seeking asylum into destitution. In the coming months, more changes are likely to make thousands of highly vulnerable people in our communities homeless and desperate. Community groups and organisations around the country cannot cope. This is a humanitarian crisis in the making.
There are now at least 15,000 people seeking asylum in our community who are still waiting for the government to decide on their refugee claims. Most came here five or six years ago. These vulnerable people often need support to survive because they cannot work or get work, and because they cannot get the social security payments that others can.
Over the years, both Labor and Liberal governments have supported people who otherwise cannot survive while their claim is being considered. This program is now called the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program. It is a lifeline for people in desperate need. It provides a basic living allowance (typically 89% of Newstart allowance), casework support and access to torture and trauma counselling. It is delivered by not-for-profit agencies across Australia. It is also used to support other vulnerable migrants in need.
Not everyone can get this support. The Department of Home Affairs (formerly the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) funds the program, and also decides who can get on the program and the level of support they get. The program is not supported by any legislation, and there is no external process of review or appeal.
We are already in crisis
From August 2017, the Department has changed who can get support from the program. Students, including people studying English and people who have won scholarships to university, have been taken off the program. People who have sent money home to family or friends have been taken off the program. People who got work but then lost it have found it almost impossible to get support again when they need it.
This has left highly vulnerable people destitute. They are coming in increasing numbers to charities, mostly charities that get no money from the government. They are asking for places to live. They are asking for money, clothes, food and medicine. These charities are already struggling to help thousands of other people seeking asylum who are waiting years to have their claims heard in court.
The crisis yet to come
We understand that the Department is now planning to take support away from thousands more people, in the next few months. The Department has indicated that if it thinks people could get a job, then they could lose support – even if they can’t get a job, and even if they have young children to look after.
This could mean thousands of people lose the only income they have, at one of the worst times of their lives. They will be unable to eat, clothe or house themselves. That will make it even more difficult for them to get jobs, when it is already very hard. Employers don’t want to employ people who have no Australian work experience or networks, short-term visas, and who have never been given help to learn English. Others just can’t work, because of their significant health problems after years of persecution.
People who need our protection most will be forced out into the streets. They will stop taking medicines, skip meals, and be exploited by employers. We are already seeing people in crisis every day. By taking away this lifesaving support after years of persecution outside and inside Australia, the government is going to send them over the edge.