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Homelessness and hunger among people seeking asylum during COVID-19

In August 2020, the Refugee Council of Australia surveyed charities, asylum support agencies and volunteer groups to understand better the situation that they and their clients are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The results are troubling: people seeking asylum have lost work, cannot find sufficient employment to support themselves, and excluded from the Federal Government’s COVID-19 support systems like JobSeeker and JobKeeper, they are facing hunger and homelessness on a scale not previously seen in Australia.

In the few months since the survey, the lockdown restrictions have eased around the country; however, the situation for this group has not improved. Indeed, it has deteriorated further. We have heard of troubling accounts of people losing their homes as the eviction moratoria have lifted and medical providers have been treating young children in this group for malnourishment and related diseases. The health impact of the pandemic has not eased for people seeking asylum, and without urgent intervention, we fear it will worsen.

Finding work

People seeking asylum who lost work during COVID-19 have continued to search for employment: as one employer advised us, in October 2020, they advertised a part-time, 15-hours per week role that would suit many people from humanitarian backgrounds. Within three days, they had 400 applications. Agencies advised that between 55-60% of the people that they were assisting had lost their jobs as a result of the pandemic or had their hours so significantly reduced that they required financial assistance or access to a food bank.

Staying safe at home

Rent is the greatest single expense that people are facing. Of the agencies surveyed, the clients that they are supporting had weekly rents that averaged between $200-$350 per week. As people were let go from casual work (as employers could not access JobKeeper for employees who were people seeking asylum on temporary visas), they quickly used up any savings to pay their rent.

Over 88% of people seeking asylum asking for assistance from the service agencies and charitable groups had difficulty paying rent due to COVID-19.

Of the thousands of people seeking asylum and accessing support from these groups, 56% are currently at risk of being evicted from their homes, and the groups estimate that 55% are at risk of homelessness (living on the streets). Over 14% are already currently experiencing homelessness (in a car, on the streets or in emergency accommodation).

Finding enough food and paying for water, electricity, and medication

The lack of access to any form of income during the pandemic has resulted in people not having money to purchase food. Over 70% of the charities’’ clients had to go without meals because of hardship and 75% had difficulty paying their utilities (water, heating, cooling, gas, electricity) because of hardship. The majority (60%) had to borrow money to cover rent, food costs, pay utilities, or to buy medication.

Support agencies and volunteer groups have outlined how deeply troubled they are:

“This group needs an income safety net, as NGOs can’t sustain paying rents for the long-term. We are paying an extra $65,000/month on rentals and emergency relief since April and has increased to $80,000/month since October. Many people will be unable to get or return to work post COVID.” ~Church-based group in Victoria

“We’ve seen increases in hardship as the lockdowns have increased and as time has gone on where people have exhausted their Super, savings, and other supports. There are debts being accumulated, which are likely to result in substantial hardship and destitution for some time to come. This [data] does not account for people experiencing extreme hardship or at great risk who have been unable to access the centre or who are triaged as ‘less in crisis’. We also have over 20 calls per day unanswered because of resource limitations. COVID seems to have reduced the options for people in obtaining employment or otherwise becoming independent.” ~Asylum support agency

“Clients have no safety net or opportunity to get on their feet upon arrival or after crisis. Clients’ ineligibility for JobKeeper has caused a lot of distress, as they have paid tax and ‘did the right thing’ but still couldn’t access JobKeeper like their [former] colleagues. People seeking asylum already struggled to enter the job market and are now up against even greater competition, with even more people and with more local experience and qualifications applying for the same jobs.” ~ Non-for-profit service organisation in NSW

“People may come to us for one issue but do not want to raise the other issues they are facing so as not to appear ‘greedy’. We are seeing people that have never accessed support before as they have been self-reliant and have had meaningful employment. We are observing increased mental health concerns.” ~West Australian charity

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