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Letter to Parliamentarians regarding financial support for SRSS

Joint letter on communication about ending temporary protection
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20 September 2022

Dear Parliamentarians,

Re: Addressing the destitution and years-long wait for decisions for people seeking protection in Australia

I write to you to advise you about the growing experience of starvation and homelessness for people seeking protection in Australia. Without a basic safety net, families and individuals seeking safety here will not be able to survive.

With empty hands

The Albanese Government has begun to make important steps towards cleaning up the mess of the previous government, including by announcing an additional 500 staff in the Home Affairs Department dedicated to visa processing. This injection of resourcing has been requested by the refugee sector and others for years and is a very welcome development.

Sadly, the mess of the previous government requires further attention and urgent action.

Background on Australia’s support for people seeking its protection

People seeking asylum may need support to survive in Australia while the government assesses their protection applications. Having often faced traumatic circumstances, they can have difficulty finding work because of their lack of permanent status and are not entitled to the social security payments available to others. The Liberal Howard Government first began a support program for people seeking asylum in 1992.

Status Resolution Support Services

Support for people seeking protection has been provided in recent years through the Status Resolution Support Service, or SRSS Program. The program provides a basic living allowance (typically 89% of the JobSeeker allowance, or approximately $42 per day), very limited casework support and sometimes access to torture and trauma counselling.

Ruthless changes under the Liberal-National Government

The previous Government, under then Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton, made draconian changes to the Federal Program to support people seeking asylum during their protection application process (the Status Resolution Support Service, or SRSS Program).  The income support available to people seeking protection began under the Liberal Howard Government in 1992. In 2017, however, then Minister Dutton cut the SRSS Program by over 85%. Over 13,000 people were supported in early 2018 to fewer than 1,900 supported in 2022.

Changes to the SRSS Program

Families with young children, elderly people, and survivors of torture are many of those who are excluded under the strict eligibility criteria of the latest SRSS Program. If people cannot work because health conditions or caring responsibilities, they are left without any form of income to pay rent, pay for prescriptions, or even get enough food for each day. People seeking asylum were not able to access any of the Federal COVID-19 pandemic support payments like JobSeeker or JobKeeper, so they have been without meaningful support for years.

States, local communities, and charities are bearing the brunt of the consequences of these cruel changes: overstretched agencies have seen increase in people seeking emergency relief for food, clothing, blankets, and support to pay rent.
Some of these charities have reported evidence of children of asylum-seeking families being treated for malnutrition and related developmental impairment because the families do not have any source of financial support to meet their basic needs and they are left hungry. This lack of support has also meant thousands of people are facing homelessness.

Thousands of people seeking asylum are living in poverty

Case study: food scarcity

An emergency relief provider in Victoria shared their recent experience of handing out food parcels to people seeking asylum. The quality of food donations had dropped significantly but the agency was still able to provide some food packages to people. These food parcels included bruised and damaged fruit and canned goods. Previously, people would take the parcels away and prepare food at home. In the most recent drop-in service, the emergency relief worker noticed that people were taking the food parcels into the parking lots and eating the damaged food right there.

People were genuinely starving, so they ate whatever didn’t need cooking right there in front of us. They were desperate and so hungry.

Key information about the situation:

  • Number of people affected – the full cohort of people seeking asylum in Australia is approximately 107,000 people. However, those that require this assistance would likely be approximately 10,000 people nationwide.
  • Major cuts to the program since 2017 – The Federal SRSS Program to support people seeking asylum during their protection application process has been modified drastically over the past five years. The narrow eligibility criteria mean very few people qualify for financial and other support. Fewer than 1,900 people are on the SRSS Program and approximately 1,600 people have access to any form of financial assistance. This is a stark contrast to the over 13,000 people who were receiving support in February 2018.  In the past few years, the Program has been cut by 85%, from $245 million allocated in 2016-17 to just $36.9 million budgeted for 2022-23. The few people who do receive financial assistance are capped at 89% of the JobSeeker rate, so they would receive approximately $42 per day.
  • Restrictive eligibility yet costly and lacking in transparency – the SRSS Program eligibility has now become so restrictive and narrow that it is benefiting very few but costing a lot in administrative burden to applicants, clients, services, and Departmental staff. The Program lacks transparency and accountability, with a lack of clarity on eligibility criteria, how decisions are made, and why expert clinical evidence is discarded or not considered in decision-making. The SRSS Program is also not achieving its intended goal to help people resolve their immigration status, with few people transitioning smoothly after a visa grant nor voluntarily departing when their visa decisions are rejected and later finalised.
  • Extreme waiting times for protection decisions – This lack of access to assistance is coupled with obscene waiting times for decisions for people who apply onshore: over a two-year average for a primary decision at the Department, and over six years for a review of decisions (with the backlog increasing) at the review tribunal. People waiting over eight years for a decision means they may face destitution and homelessness for almost a decade. People subject to the fast-track process are still waiting for decisions after arriving in Australia in 2012 and 2013.

Fast tracking statistics

What is needed now

There is an urgent need for an immediate injection of funds to the SRSS Program budget and for the Minister for Immigration to give policy direction to Home Affairs before November 2022 to remove the guidelines and policies that restrict access to Status Resolution Support Services for people seeking asylum. This includes:

  • Ensuring people have a valid bridging visa with associated work and study rights and linked to Medicare while they await decisions on their protection application, including by automating the bridging renewal process;
  • Extending SRSS eligibility criteria to focus on the needs and vulnerabilities of individuals and families so that it prevents destitution. This is a shift from eligibility that focuses on job readiness;
  • Ensuring eligibility criteria and processes are clear and transparent for individuals applying, unfunded agencies supporting them, and contracted SRSS providers, and
  • Expanding the use of emergency approvals as a stop gap for when people are in emergency situations and need support in order to make a full SRSS application.

The Minister’s policy directions would ensure fair and equitable access, transparency, accountability, and administrative efficiency.

A budget re-allocation to allow additional funding for SRSS could include cost-saving measures within Home Affairs, including through converting TPVs and SHEVs to permanent visas, saving on the current regular renew of these every 3 to 5 years; releasing people who are not a high risk from immigration detention; medically evacuating sick people from PNG and Nauru to reduce the offshore processing costs and protect those people, and extending six-month bridging visas, reducing the departmental administrative burden.

What does the ALP National Platform have to say?

It is worth noting that the ALP National Platform outlines the new Government’s plan related to this issue.

The Platform includes:

  • Recognition of the need for a fair and timely refugee status determination process, including a limit of 90 days to make decisions instead of the current average of over eight years (2,922 days).
  • Inclusion of means-tested access to social services, including income support, migration advice, crisis housing, healthcare, mental health support, and community, education and English as a Second Language support during the assessment of the claim for protection.
  • Labor’s assertion that it will deal with “the complex issue of those seeking Australia’s protection by giving expression to the values of compassion, justice, human rights, fairness and generosity. …A fundamental principle in treating those seeking protection with humanity is to provide as much certainty as possible.”

Changes to support for people seeking protection does not require legislative amendments. In the context of the overall budget, the additional allocation would be relatively minor but the impact it would have on families and individuals currently suffering would be great.

I seek your help in urgently addressing the basic needs of people seeking protection in Australia by making the SRSS Program accessible and available to people who need it most.

I am available to discuss this issue further on [mobile number].

Yours faithfully,

Paul Power
CEO
Refugee Council of Australia

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