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Letter to the Treasurer on the need for urgent action to reverse cuts to support for people seeking asylum

On 26 September 2022, the Refugee Council of Australia wrote to the Treasurer, Dr Jim Chalmers MP,  about the need to reverse cuts to SRSS support. On 31 October 2022, we received a response from the Director of Status Resolution Support Programs in the Department of Home Affairs. You can read our letter and the response below.

Read our 26 September 2022 letter.

Read the 31 October 2022 response from the Department of Home Affairs.

26 September 2022

Dr Jim Chalmers MP
Treasurer
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600

Dear Dr Chalmers,

Re: Need for urgent action to reverse cuts to support for people seeking asylum

I am writing to seek your support for the reversal of the previous Government’s devastating cuts to support for people seeking asylum. In 2017, then Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton began a series of changes to the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) Program which resulted in an 85% cut in the program over four years and the removal of assistance from more than 11,000 people.

This decision has directly resulted in a marked increase in starvation and homelessness for people seeking protection in Australia. Without a basic safety net, families and individuals seeking safety are struggling to survive when they find themselves without regular income through employment. States, local communities and charities are bearing the brunt of the consequences of these cruel changes: overstretched agencies have seen an increase in people seeking emergency relief for food, clothing, blankets, and support to pay rent.

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Multicultural Affairs, Andrew Giles, has said that he will look at this issue in the lead-up to the Budget in May 2023. However, the need is so great that action needs to be taken as soon as possible – in the October 2022 Budget if at all possible – to begin the reversal of the devastating cuts to the program.

A summary of the current situation

Here is a quick summary of the issue:

  • The SRSS Program offers minimal (but vital) assistance of just $42 a day – The SRSS Program is a successor to the support program for people seeking asylum first introduced by the Howard Government in 2006. 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.
  • $209 million has been cut since 2017 – Declaring that it was “not a welfare program”, then Minister Dutton pushed for a narrowing of the eligibility criteria of the SRSS Program, reducing the number of people assisted from more than 13,000 in February 2018 to fewer than 1,900 now. Budget papers show that the funds allocated to payments (administered by Services Australia on behalf of the Department of Home Affairs) reduced from $245.8 million in 2016-17 to $36.9 million in 2022-23.
  • The program benefits few people but has a high administrative burden – 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 disregarded or not considered in decision-making.
  • The cuts undermine efforts to resolve people’s immigration status – The Howard Government’s original Community Care Pilot was introduced in 2006 because the destitution among people seeking asylum left many people so locked in a battle for survival day to day that they could not engage effectively in resolving their immigration status. Today, with much of the safety net removed, we are seeing the same issue again – few people transitioning smoothly after a visa grant or voluntarily departing when their visa decisions are rejected and finalised.
  • Lengthy delays in visa processing have made the situation much worse – This lack of access to assistance is coupled with shocking waiting times for decisions for people who apply onshore: over a two-year average for a primary decision from the Department of Home Affairs and over six years for a review of decisions by the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT). This means that many people are waiting more than eight years without access to a safety net for a final resolution of their asylum application.

We welcome the Albanese Government’s announcement that it will recruit 500 additional staff to deal with visa processing delays in the Department. We look forward to this making a positive difference for protection visa applicants. The Attorney General has identified the urgent need for reform of the AAT. We look forward to the Government taking action on this as well.

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.”

What is needed now

The ALP National Platform identifies the need for:

  • a fair and timely refugee status determination process, with a target of 90 days for decisions;
  • 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;
  • dealing with those seeking protection in Australia “giving expression to the values of compassion, justice, human rights, fairness and generosity”, acknowledging also that “a fundamental principle in treating those seeking protection with humanity is to provide as much certainty as possible.”

Our appeal to the Government is to put the principles in the ALP National Platform into action by:

1. An immediate injection of funds into the SRSS Program budget in the October 2022 Budget, to begin the reversal of the damage created by the previous government’s cuts.

2. A policy direction from the Immigration Minister to the Department of Home Affairs to remove the guidelines and policies that restrict access to Status Resolution Support Services for people seeking asylum, so that individuals and families facing destitution can have their needs addressed.

3. Giving particular priority to finalising Onshore Protection Visa applications as the Department works to address backlogs for all visa classes.

Your support in advocating for these points would be much appreciated.

Yours faithfully,

Paul Power
Chief Executive Officer
Refugee Council of Australia

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