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An unnecessary penalty: Economic impacts of changes to the Status Resolution Support Services

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Background: The Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS)

People seeking asylum in Australia, whether they arrived by boat or plane, often need support to live in the community while their claims for protection are being processed. Traumatic circumstances during their migration journeys, combined with deliberately punitive policies, can create complex challenges for this group as they struggle to survive in the community.

Many spent years in immigration detention facilities in Australia or offshore in Nauru and Manus Island. Most people seeking asylum who came to Australia by boat after 13 August 2012 waited for well over three years for the opportunity to lodge a protection application. In that three-year period (from 2012 to 2015), almost everyone seeking asylum who came by boat could not lawfully work, as a condition of their bridging visas. They were forced to rely on support payments and lost years of their lives because they could not work or use the time to study and upskill.

When people finally got a chance to apply for protection, the majority were processed under the so-called ‘fast track’ system. The process put in place tight timelines for providing claims and evidence and changed the definition of what it means to be a “refugee”. Most importantly, it radically reduced the independence and quality of the review process by turning it into a paper review of the decision by the now Department of Home Affairs, creating a real risk of returning people to persecution. The Government made the complex process of applying for protection even more challenging by removing people’s access to government-funded legal advice and interpreters. Most people seeking asylum could not afford a lawyer, but needed help to navigate the system. This resulted in long waiting lists (of up to one year) at the handful of small, underfunded legal centres who were offering to help people for free.

After a very slow start to the so-called ‘fast track’ process, the then Department of Immigration suddenly, and without warning, began to threaten people who were still waiting for legal help. First, it sent warning letters to some people, giving them 60 days to apply. Then on 21 May 2017, the Minister for Immigration, again without warning, announced that if people did not apply for protection visas by 1 October 2017, they would never be able to get any visa in Australia and would be forced to return to their countries of origin. This deadline was introduced even though there were thousands of valid applications still waiting for decisions from the Department. Under enormous pressure, the legal centres, pro bono lawyers and volunteers across Australia largely succeeded in meeting this arbitrary and extremely tight deadline. All but 71 of the thousands still waiting did manage to apply by the deadline, although surely at severe cost to the quality of their applications.

In addition to the often changing goal posts and the uncertainty of their protection process, people seeking asylum are ineligible to access mainstream support services available to other humanitarian migrants. While waiting for both the opportunity to apply for protection and then for the Government’s decision on their refugee claims, the SRSS program provides this group a basic safety net of fortnightly payments (typically 89% of ‘Newstart’ allowance, currently $243 per week or $35 per day for a single person with no children), casework support, access to torture and trauma counselling and subsidised medication. SRSS is currently funded through the Department of Home Affairs (the Department). The total budget expenditure from September 2014 to April 2018 was $1.71 billion, inclusive of SRSS program support, payments made direct to recipients on behalf of the Department by Department of Human Services and the cost of school-based education of minors.

Colum chart showing respondents by income sizeAs at 27 February 2018, 13,299 people (including 3,815 children under 15 years old) were receiving SRSS support (see Appendix 1 for available details about the SRSS cohort). However, not all people seeking asylum are entitled to access the program. Eligibility is determined by the Department, and people must apply through an SRSS service provider. There are different levels (‘bands’) of support depending on the circumstances of the client. As at 27 February 2018, 94% of SRSS recipients were receiving Band 6 support. Band 6 is available to people seeking asylum who have applied for a Protection visa, are waiting for their application to be decided, are living in the community and cannot meet their basic healthcare and living needs.

Understanding the changes to SRSS

The Department of Home Affairs has recently commenced restricting the eligibility criteria for the SRSS program. Those who stay on the program may not have access to the full suite of support. People seeking asylum who have the right to work and do not meet a high threshold of vulnerability as assessed by contracted SRSS providers will be exited from the program even if they are unemployed and do not have a form of income. The Department initially indicated that people would be assessed as to their ‘job readiness’ before potential exit from the program; however, job readiness is not now a measure of eligibility. Rather, SRSS providers and the Department will assess recipients’ vulnerability. The four elements to the vulnerability assessment are:

  • Physical health barriers that are ongoing; permanent disability; or cognitive impairment
  • Mental health barriers, with a current diagnosis and treatment plan in place
  • Single parents with pre-school aged children (children under six); pregnant women; a primary carer for someone with a significant vulnerability; people aged 70 and over
  • A major crisis for the client (family violence, house fire, flood, etc.)

The Department will also use its own information to conduct assessments (the Community Protection Assessment Tool, CPAT) and may seek a second opinion on certain issues through experts, such as the Chief Medical Officer for health matters.

The Department has indicated that the program is likely to be reduced drastically, probably to fewer than 5,000 people. So far 400 SRSS recipients (mostly single adult men) have been removed from the program and another 400 have been notified that their payments would be cut in the month of September. We understand that at least 1,200 people will have their payments cut by the end of this year.

As programs like SRSS are departmental policy and are not included in legislation, the changes being introduced are entirely up to the discretion of the Minister for Immigration; they do not require Cabinet approval or legislation. The recent SRSS changes were made through additions to the SRSS Operational Procedures Manual.

Few details are available of the Federal Government’s intended purpose and the Departmental rationale for these changes. There has been no publicly-articulated position on the anticipated costs or benefits of this policy amendment. There has also been no consultation with service providers and civil society about the changes.
During Senate Estimates hearings in May 2018, Department representatives explained that the changes are designed to enable a ‘focus on people’s capacity for self-agency and status resolution through granting of a visa or departure from Australia.’ Further, ‘individuals on a bridging visa with work rights, and who have the capacity to work, are expected to support themselves while their immigration status is being resolved. People will be referred to jobactive [Australia’s public employment support service] if they need assistance finding work.’

However, it should be noted that finding paid employment in Australia is a significant challenge for most people seeking asylum. Due to a complex range of barriers (including being denied the right to work for many years, short term bridging visas, lack of access to government-funded English language classes, and living in limbo and uncertainty for a long time), most are not ready to enter the labour market. For those who are, RCOA research on jobactive services has identified significant limitations with the service and the support it provides to refugees and humanitarian entrants.

Restrictions on available SRSS data

Lack of official data about the SRSS recipients and the Department’s refusal to publish detailed and updated data about this group make it difficult to establish an accurate picture of their characteristics, needs, level of support, and service use patterns. That is why RCOA had to survey community organisations and non-SRSS providers to better understand this group, their needs and the impact of support cuts on them.

The SRSS program is provided through contracts with service providers which are subject to confidentiality clauses. This means that providers are unable to disclose most of the details of the Program without risking a breach of the contract.

Detailed calculation of SRSS costs is complicated because the amount of support received under the Program depends on family composition and the level of services they require. Beyond the basic living allowance at 89% of Newstart (which varies depending on family composition), there are costs involved in case management, providing services such as torture and trauma counselling, and healthcare. Further, clients enter and exit the program over time as their circumstances change, which makes the data very dynamic.

Currently, given the restrictiveness of the Program, many people are likely to be ineligible for support, even if they need it. In this situation, it would be common for them to be turned away or advised not to proceed, without any record captured.

A particular gap is that even in the official data there is no record of the number of people who, having left the Program (for example, because they have a job), try to re-enter the Program. Service providers are not funded to help people apply to enter the Program, and assistance with this is typically resource-intensive.
There is no regular public reporting under the SRSS program. The data that is published include:

  • A line in the Department of Human Services’ budget for asylum support payments, representing the amount paid through Centrelink in allowances under SRSS.
  • The Department of Home Affairs’ budget has, in the past, included a line item for the support of people seeking asylum. It is not clear, however, what that encompasses, and the line item does not appear consistently over time.
  • A quarterly report of the number of people on Bridging Visas E (people who came by boat and are seeking protection), which includes the number of people in each State by postcode, age, gender and nationality. However, this publication does not cover people on other bridging visas that are eligible for the SRSS Program (for example, people seeking protection who arrived by plane), and it is unclear how many of those on Bridging Visas E are on the SRSS Program.
  • A monthly report on the progress of the ‘fast tracking’ process, which refers to the processing of people who arrived by boat after 13 August 2012 and are seeking protection. Those whose claims have not been determined hold a Bridging Visa E (including those waiting in the community for a renewed bridging visa). However, it is unclear if this includes all people on a Bridging Visa E, as some arrived before 13 August 2012 but are still going through the process of determination. That number is no longer publicly reported.

The Department of Home Affairs declined to release the details of the changes to help the sector prepare for the new system. When it released some documents, they were released months after the implementation of the changes. Most communication from the Department to service providers and other stakeholders has been verbal. RCOA and stakeholders other than the contracted service providers were not informed of any of the changes in advance, and much of the information on the changes have been pieced together through collaboration within the sector.

Other data referenced in this report has been produced through freedom of information or through Senate Questions on Notice. For example, the Operational Manual which governs the policy has been released through a freedom of information request. The budgetary amounts spent on the Program, and client numbers as at 28 February 2018 (broken down by State), were all released through Senate Estimates.

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