2. Access to a safety net to prevent destitution
This situation is growing worse by the day as people seeking asylum and other temporary visa holders lose their only form of income. Charities, which could not cope with the demand for emergency assistance before the pandemic, are now overwhelmed, at a time when they have to work even harder to maintain frontline services because of the spread of COVID-19. Key frontline asylum support services are now receiving more calls each day from people seeking crisis help than at any stage in their history, with many seeing requests triple since mid-March. Many of the people now asking for help were working and paying taxes until recent weeks but, excluded from any form of government assistance, have nothing to survive on. JobSeeker must be extended to all people who do not have an alternative form of income to prevent people from being destitute and homeless.
We welcome the announcement of an emergency relief funding boost to address the needs of vulnerable Australians and people on temporary visas. The Government’s recognition that people are already falling through the cracks is admirable. Unfortunately, the emergency relief funding will not adequately meet the growing needs of people who have lost their jobs, have families to support but without access to a basic safety net. The cracks are widening and the current response does not provide a safety net to catch people need. We need a more dignified and sustainable solution to provide ongoing support to those who are most vulnerable.
The Government’s response package extended access to JobSeeker payments to help support people who have lost their jobs or face reduced hours because of the pandemic. While Australian citizens and permanent visa holders can access JobSeeker payments, people seeking asylum on Bridging Visas and other temporary visa holders cannot. Refugees on temporary visas – TPVs or SHEVs – can access the equivalent of JobSeeker via Special Benefit, but they face strict limitations. The Government’s wage subsidy program JobKeeper is not available to temporary visa holders, including refugees on TPVs and SHEVs and people seeking asylum on Bridging Visas, all of whom cannot return home.
From an economic perspective, we need to ensure that employers are able to retain the staff they need to remain viable. Employers are being denied the choice to retain key staff who are temporary visa holders, even if they have been employed with them for over 12 months. JobKeeper must be extended to include people employed and holding temporary visas.
People found to be refugees but granted only temporary visas continue to have no certainty about their visa status and their job security during the economic downturn. Despite working very hard to try to keep their jobs, some have already lost their employment due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear many more will lose their employment in the near future.
People who hold SHEVs are anxious about the impact of the current pandemic on their ability to fulfil the pathway requirements of this visa. SHEV holders may apply for a limited range of permanent visas if they can provide evidence they have met a pathway which requires them to work or study in a designated “regional” area for 3½ years without accessing Centrelink payments. SHEV holders who have already lost their employment are worried about accessing the Centrelink Special Benefits they would qualify for, as they fear this will impact upon their ability to fulfil the SHEV pathway. The arbitrary criteria of the SHEV pathway, and people’s worry about fulfilling them, may leave them destitute and even more at risk of COVID-19.
The pandemic has also made it even harder for SHEV holders to try to find appropriate work in a designated regional area. Without ongoing employment, they are much less likely to meet the work requirements of the few permanent visas that may otherwise be available to them. The SHEV pathway criteria urgently need to change in order to protect SHEV holders and the Australian community.
TPV and SHEV holders who are studying a course greater than 12 months are prevented from access to Special Benefit. This has created significant hardship for refugees, especially young people, who are studying at university or through a vocational education provider. These students are not eligible for commonwealth support for education, such as the Higher Education Loan Program and Commonwealth Supported Places. This means that they must pay full international student rates up front, causing them significant hardship. Many of these refugee students have lost the casual jobs they relied upon to support their study. Many are facing the difficult choice of withdrawing from studies to be eligible for Special Benefit or continue studying with no income and face destitution. Students have also had to move their studies online, with additional expenses for computers, internet access and other essentials. The Special Benefits criteria should be amended to enable TPV and SHEV holders to receive support while studying full-time.