The Federal Government’s changes to the SRSS program in 2017 and 2018, revising recipients’ eligibility to receive income, casework and other critical support, will have significant individual, social and economic costs. Although SRSS may have not been adequate in and of itself, it has been the only federal support program for people seeking asylum living in the community.
State and territory governments have made investments in different forms of targeted support to ‘fill the gaps’ created by the federal government. The efforts of community organisations, charities, churches, volunteers and similar groups have also ensured that a safety net for people seeking asylum has existed until now. Our sample of 24 organisations in six states and territories (still just a fraction of the range of organisations and individuals that support this cohort) provides over $40 million in service value and volunteer support to people seeking asylum. The changes to SRSS will create even more demand on these organisations and state governments to fill the support gap.
Having surveyed community organisations, our findings indicate that taking financial support away from people seeking asylum will put them at significant risk of poverty, homelessness and even destitution. Many are already drawing on emergency relief, food banks, and homelessness services. With no source of income, many will soon struggle to pay for shelter, food, medication and bills, leaving them in need of basic assistance.
Government income support can reduce the negative impacts of poverty and unemployment by enabling recipients to meet their costs of living while they search for stable job opportunities. Social benefits allow low-income groups to remain engaged in short-term or casual jobs while their immigration status is resolved, and they seek more secure employment. Without government income support, people may be forced to accept substandard employment, with associated risks of underpayment and labour exploitation.
Barriers to finding work for people seeking asylum will be amplified by the SRSS cuts. At best, they will have precarious job situations. At worst, they will have no means of supporting themselves. In both situations, they will have to rely on other services, mostly provided by community-based organisations and to a lesser extent by some state governments.
The changes being made to the SRSS program also ignore the complex experience of simultaneously seeking asylum and a job in Australia.
State governments stand to bear increased costs for service provision to provide a safety net for people seeking asylum. Reducing SRSS recipients’ income to zero without investing in tailored support services means that state and local services will need to absorb more clients and more costs to respond to the destitution of people in their jurisdictions.
For a group that is already marginalised and unable to access Australia’s public institutions, poverty induced by harsh government policies is likely to lead to further isolation and desperation.
In some cases, individuals and families have been waiting up to six years for the Department to decide on their protection status, creating significant anxiety and uncertainty. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that a significant proportion (between 72-88%) of people seeking asylum will be granted protection. Forcing them into precarious situations of material poverty and destitution will compromise their chances of gaining a foothold in the labour market and settling well into Australian society in the future.