Last updated on 9 April 2020
Since mid-March 2020, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) has been hosting regular national meetings with refugee communities, frontline services and advocacy organisations, to discuss collective responses to the most pressing issues for people seeking asylum and refugees resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is RCOA’s summary of the priorities which have been identified at these meetings.
1.Move people urgently out of crowded immigration detention facilities
There are grave concerns for people in immigration detention facilities, particularly those who have been transferred from offshore facilities to Australia for medical treatment and those people detained long-term. The Commonwealth Department of Health has nominated people in detention facilities as one of several groups of people in Australia at risk of serious infection from COVID-19. The majority of closed immigration detention facilities, including hotels that are being used as alternative places of detention to accommodate people transferred from PNG and Nauru, are currently overcrowded. People in these facilities are not able to maintain the social distancing recommended by health authorities to reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19. A number of people in immigration detention also fall into two other high-risk groups identified by the Department of Health: those with compromised immune systems and those with chronic medical conditions.
We are deeply concerned about the adequacy of the current responses to COVID-19 from the Australian Border Force, Department of Home Affairs and contracted detention service providers. It is clear that the most appropriate and safest response in the current circumstances is to release people into the community into either residence determination (community detention) using some of the many vacant accommodation facilities around Australia or release people onto ongoing Bridging Visas, with financial support and access to Medicare being essential. The appropriate community placement should be identified based on people’s needs and vulnerabilities.
2.Ensure a financial safety net and Medicare access for all in Australia
People seeking asylum who are living in the community without access to financial support and Medicare are some of those at greatest risk for the COVID-19 and also those that cannot adhere to public health requirements like self-isolation.
For the past two years, an increasing number of people seeking asylum have lost access to financial and casework support under Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) because of deliberate program redesign. Many do not have access to Medicare, either because of a delay or refusal to renew Bridging Visas or through Federal Government policy.
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. Several of these frontline asylum support services have received more calls from people seeking crisis help in the past week than at any stage in their history, with many facing requests that tripled in less than a fortnight. 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.
Unstable housing as a result of destitution impedes people’s ability to adequately self-isolate. Lack of access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme means many cannot afford to purchase vital medications. This can further compromise people’s general health and increase their need for hospital admission, which is challenging when the health system is experiencing increased demand due to COVID-19.
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 cannot. Refugees on temporary visas (TPVs and SHEVs) can access the equivalent of JobSeeker via Special Benefit, but they face 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.
3.Prevent people losing legal status and access to support
The current visa system, which sees people apply for a Bridging Visa renewal and face either months-long delays or refusals without clear reasons, means that people who have made every effort to engage in the process face being forced into an irregular status, with no rights or entitlements. Further flexibility should be applied to deadline extensions and visa conditions (like access to Medicare and work rights). While community legal centres continue to operate remotely, many charities and volunteer organisations who assisted people in filling forms related to visa applications and renewals have had to suspend these services. This creates a significant barrier for people to remain lawful and maintain their access to rights that are linked to visas, such as Medicare and work rights. Bridging Visa grants and renewals need to be simplified and prompt.
There also needs to be concerted efforts between the Departments of Health and Home Affairs to disseminate messages to assure people that no-one taking a test for COVID-19 will be at risk of arrest or detention, even if they have no current visa.
4.Move refugees and people seeking asylum from PNG and Nauru
RCOA is deeply concerned for the refugees and people seeking asylum who are still in PNG and Nauru under Australia’s offshore processing regime. Noting that there have already been cases of COVID-19 in Papua New Guinea and a State of Emergency has been declared in both PNG and Nauru, service providers working with refugees and people seeking asylum are worried about the capacity of health systems in those countries to respond to a potential pandemic. There is ample and overwhelming evidence of the inadequacies in healthcare provision in those countries, even with financial support from Australia. Further pressure on those fragile health systems could result in their falling apart, with serious consequences for the refugees and people seeking asylum in those countries, many of whom have already chronic illnesses and are immunocompromised.
5.Ensure that refugees on SHEVs are not penalised in light of the COVID-19 pandemic
RCOA member agencies are very concerned that people found to be refugees but granted only a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) 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 have also shared their increasing anxiety 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 3.5 years without accessing Centrelink payments.
We heard from SHEV holders who have already lost their employment that they 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 contracting and spreading COVID-19.
The pandemic has also made it even harder for SHEV holders to try to find appropriate work in a designated regional area. And without ongoing employment, they are much less likely to meet the work experience requirements of the few permanent visas that may be available to them even if they do meet the SHEV pathway. The SHEV pathway criteria urgently needs to change in order to protect SHEV holders and the Australian community.
It is unclear what the Australian economy and workforce will look like post the pandemic. TPV and SHEV holders are part of our community and have already contributed to our economy. They have skills and contributions which can help rebuild communities and businesses which will have been impacted by the crisis across metropolitan, regional and rural areas. TPV and SHEV holders should be provided with opportunities to access permanent visas, with family reunion, which will help maximise their contributions across the country.
How to get involved in this advocacy work
To support our direct lobbying of MPs and Senators on these matters, we are calling on our members and supporters to contact their local MP to ensure they are aware of the gap in the government’s coronavirus support package for people seeking asylum. We are calling on the government to ensure access to Medicare and financial support for people seeking asylum if in need. This reflects the situation for other residents in Australia. It will help prevent destitution, homelessness and severe illness.
You can help by contacting your local MP and asking them to raise these matters with the relevant Ministers and party spokespeople.