Introduction

While waiting for their immigration status to be resolved, people seeking asylum in Australia remain socially and economically vulnerable. The Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) and its previous iterations have historically supported people seeking asylum to meet their basic healthcare and living needs, as they are ineligible for any other form of Government-funded social security support. As a result of the Federal Government’s recent changes to the SRSS, many people seeking asylum will lose financial support and access to critical services. This puts them at risk of poverty, destitution and homelessness.

Front cover of SRSS economic report

What is the economic impact?

This paper, authored by John van Kooy with contributions by Dr Tony Ward, finds that the changes to SRSS will force people into situations of material poverty rather than assisting them to find employment. Removing income and case management support also shifts federal welfare costs and responsibilities to state agencies as well as to community-based organisations, many of which are reliant on private donations and volunteer support. The changes represent an unnecessary penalty for a group already rendered vulnerable by the immigration status resolution process.

This study was commissioned by RCOA and its partner organisations to investigate the impacts of the changes to SRSS announced in early 2018. The purpose of the study was to better understand how restricting SRSS eligibility would impact upon people’s employment prospects, and examine the flow-on effects for organisations providing critical services to this cohort, focusing mainly on the economic impacts.

Our commissioning partners

Executive summary

People seeking asylum in Australia are one of the most disadvantaged groups in our society. They have been subject to years of deliberately punitive policies. Fleeing war and prosecution, many arrived in Australia just to experience months or years of immigration detention, with no idea of when—if ever—they would be released. For years, many were denied the right to work, were subject to constantly changing policies and goal posts, had to wait for several years in limbo to even be able to apply for refugee protection, and most were denied access to legal support to help them navigate an increasingly complex protection process.

While waiting for both the opportunity to apply for protection and then for the Government’s decision on their refugee claims, people seeking asylum have been supported by a program that is currently called the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS), the only Government-funded support available for this group. The SRSS provides people with 89% of Newstart allowance (as little as $35 per day), casework support, access to torture and trauma services and sometimes, subsidised medication. However, the Government has drastically changed the eligibility criteria for this program. The changes to SRSS eligibility criteria are going to leave many people without access to income, casework support, vital medication and mental health counselling.

The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) along with a number of organisations supporting people seeking asylum have commissioned this report to understand the economic impacts of the SRSS changes on NGOs, state and territory governments, and local charitable groups. RCOA developed a survey and asked some of the major organisations to respond based on the experiences of their clients. The responses showed:

  • Almost four in five (79%) people seeking asylum in respondents’ caseloads are at risk of homelessness and destitution if they lose SRSS support.
  • In total, 24 organisations that participated in the study represent nearly $39 million of service value to people seeking asylum across six states and territories, with a combined client caseload of 19,100 people.[1] In national terms, this represents a fraction of the community sector investment in creating a safety net for people seeking asylum.

According to the survey, only 8% of the respondents’ clients are working full-time. More than two-thirds have not been able to find employment or are not in job market due to care requirements, old age or health issues. On average, the respondents considered only one in five (20%) people in their caseloads as fully ‘job ready.’ Half (50%) were considered not ‘job ready’ at all, while 30% were only partially ‘job ready’.

According to the current SRSS eligibility criteria, people who do not meet a high threshold of vulnerability will be exited from the program and are expected to secure employment without additional support. Based on the data from the survey, many of them will not be job ready. They are eligible for the most basic support under Jobactive (access to a computer and internet to search for jobs), but do not get any government support to learn English and have no safety net. International experience shows that forcing disadvantaged people into a job search without support does not lead to improved employment results. At best, it means short-term, marginal jobs with the high risk of exploitation. More commonly, it simply pushes vulnerable people into poverty.

The cuts to SRSS do not give whole-of-government cost savings. They simply shift significant costs from the Commonwealth to the states and community-based organisations. This report estimates that as a result of the SRSS cuts, state governments will be facing significant additional costs in health, corrections, and homelessness services. The total cost to the states and territories is likely to be between $80 and $120 million per year.

(Note: It is likely that some of the organisations located in the same state share the same clients; therefore, a person using multiple services from multiple organisations may have been counted more than once.)

Recommendations

The Federal Government’s decision to heavily restrict eligibility criteria for receiving Status Resolution Support Services imposes major costs, both short and long term. We recommend that the Government immediately restore SRSS eligibility criteria to 2014 measures and ensure that people seeking asylum have the opportunity to access basic financial assistance, casework, torture and trauma counselling, and other supports required to help resolve their immigration status.

There are significant challenges in understanding the characteristics of SRSS recipients. The Department of Home Affairs has consistently denied access to detailed SRSS data, SRSS providers are contractually restricted from sharing information and there is no public reporting under the SRSS program. There is also no information on the number of new applications that are being refused. We recommend that SRSS payment and service data be captured and shared regularly.