Refugee Council of Australia
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Starving them out: How our government is making people seeking asylum destitute

Background

People seeking asylum in Australia come either by plane or by boat. Australia treats these two groups of people quite differently, with especially punitive policies for people coming by boat.

When the Coalition Government came into power in 2013, there were around 30,000 people seeking asylum who had come by boat. Most of these people have been in Australia for more than five years now. Many of them had been prevented from seeking protection by laws and policies, while others were still going through several reassessment processes. Many of them had been detained in Australia and others were transferred to and from Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.

Most of these people are now living in our community on a bridging visa known as bridging visa E. This gives them lawful permission to stay in the country but the rights and conditions of these visas have changed over time.

The Coalition Government came to power with the aim of providing only temporary protection for these people, and promising to introduce yet another system for deciding whether they were refugees, the so-called ‘fast track’ system. This was meant to have decided their claims by the end of 2017, but in practice, only about half of the claims were decided by January 2018. This is partly caused by the withdrawal of government funding for legal advice and representation of this highly vulnerable group.

Under the ‘fast track’ process, the process of reviewing the Department’s decisions on refugee status was also changed. This reduced the independence and quality of the review, creating a real risk of returning people to persecution. People who have been refused protection under this system can apply to a court to review the legality of the Department’s decision, but court hearings can be months and even years away, with some people now receiving court dates in 2021.

This process does not apply to a smaller group of people who came to Australia by boat before 13 August 2012 but whose claims had not been finalised by September 2013. This group of people, however, can only get temporary protection, even though they made their protection visa applications when the temporary protection visa regime was not in place.

People who come by plane on a valid visa (for example, as a student) can also claim asylum. The process of seeking protection for them is now different from those who came by boat, as they are entitled to permanent protection and are not subject to the ‘fast track’ process. Typically, people in this group are given bridging visas with the same conditions as the visa they came on. These conditions are generally more favourable than those under the bridging visa E, but often will have restricted access to Medicare and social security benefits. Waiting times for decisions under this process now stretch into years.

History

A program to support people seeking asylum, called the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS),was first established in July 1992. People could only access the scheme if they were waiting for their application for protection to be decided, and could not meet their most basic healthcare and living needs. The program was established as this very vulnerable group could not access any other form of Government-funded support, including social security and Medicare.

Another program, the Community Care Pilot (later changed to the‘Community Assistance Support’ or CAS program), was established in 2005. This was for people who became vulnerable during their migration journey (including forced migration), and could not meet their basic needs while waiting for their visa application to be finalised.

In the same year, community detention(also referred to as ‘residence determination’) was introduced. The Minister for Immigration was given the power to make a ‘residence determination’ for a person in immigration detention. This meant the person could leave a detention facility and live in a specified residence in the community. A person in this position is said to be in ‘community detention’.

While the name and eligibility criteria of these programs have changed over the years, they have always been based on departmental policy and are not supported by any legislation. Changes to the programs therefore do not require Cabinet approval or legislative change.

Current program

The current support program, called Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS), replaced the above programs in 2014. It has six different levels of support (‘Bands’), depending on the circumstances of the person on the program.

Under most Bands, people receive a basic living allowance (typically 89% of Newstart allowance, currently $243 per week for a single person with no children), casework support, access to torture and trauma counselling and subsidised medication. For people who are not eligible for Medicare, the cost of healthcare in line with Medicare may be covered.

The Department of Home Affairs (previously the Department of Immigration) determines the criteria for accessing support, and the level of support people get in each Band. It also approves or refers a person to receive support through these programs and determines their support Band. There is no external process of review or appeal from these decisions.

Those Bands are:

  • Band 1: Support for unaccompanied minors in places of detention
  • Band 2: Support for unaccompanied minors in Residence Determination arrangements (‘community detention’)
  • Band 3: Support for adults and families in Residence Determination arrangements (‘community detention’)
  • Band 4: Transitional support for people leaving immigration detention facilities following the grant of a visa
  • Band 5: Support for any vulnerable migrant with an unresolved immigration status (including people seeking asylum) who are living in the Australian community on a valid visa (formerly known as ‘Community Assistance Support’). Recipients of Band 5 usually have more complex needs and require intensive casework support.
  • Band 6: Support for people seeking asylum living in the Australian community on a valid visa (formerly known as ‘Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme’)

People can also seek support under Band 6 by being assessed for eligibility by an SRSS service provider. If the person is considered eligible, the provider will assist them to complete the application and submit it to the Department for a decision on whether the person can access support. However, people who are waiting for a court decision on their visa application cannot access support through Band 6.

Those in Band 5 usually have more complex needs and receive more intensive casework support. Those in community detention (now either ‘Band 2’ or ‘Band 3’ depending on the age and family status of the recipient) receive more limited financial support because they are provided with housing. They receive healthcare support from International Health and Medical Services (IHMS). (For more on SRSS eligiblity and processes, see the SRSS Operational Manual.)

Service providers

For many years, Australian Red Cross was the only provider of these support programs. However, in recent years (mainly from 2012), the then Department of Immigration contracted more service providers across the country.

Australian Red Cross was the only national provider with offices in all states and territories. Service providers delivering the program in different states and territories are:

  • In Australian Capital Territory: Life Without Barriers
  • In New South Wales: Settlement Services International (SSI), Life Without Barriers
  • In Victoria: AMES Australia, Life Without Barriers
  • In Queensland: Access Community Services, Multicultural Development Association (MDA)
  • In South Australia: Life Without Barriers, Australian Migrant Resource Centre
  • In Western Australia: Mercycare,
  • In Northern Territory: Life Without Barriers, and
  • In Tasmania: CatholicCare Tasmania.

As of 1 July 2018, Australian Red Cross (who used to operate nationally) and Marist 180 (who used to operate in NSW) will not have their contracts renewed. The other service providers will continue delivering the program, and clients of Australian Red Cross and Marist 180 will be transferred to them.

Why do people need the support offered through SRSS?

The SRSS program is the only government-funded support available for people seeking asylum. They are not eligible for any other form of social security payments, cannot access public housing and cannot apply for Low Income Healthcare Cards.

Many of the people who came by boat have been barred from working until recently (people in community detention still do not have work rights). They have also been given no or very little support by the government to learn English. (For a short period they could access 45 hours of government-funded English classes spread over 6 weeks but that ceased several years ago.) If they want training to improve their knowledge and skills, they need to pay international student fees, which they cannot afford. Even now that many have work rights, employers are put off by the complexity of the visas, their short duration, and the practical challenges of renewing those visas. People also face discrimination and lack local work experience and networks. Those who do get work are at real risk of exploitation and being subject to substandard work conditions.

People seeking asylum have often fled decades of war, persecution and displacement. They have endured extraordinary hardship to reach Australia. Many have been detained by Australia (including on Nauru and Manus Island) and have waited in limbo for years for their claims to be processed. Many live in daily fear of being returned and of never being able to see their loved ones again. The effects of these events on people’s mental health make it difficult for many to work, navigate the complex process of seeking asylum, or cope with the daily struggle of living on the margins.

SRSS is not merely about income support. The casework support it offers (even though it has become limited in the past few years) helps people navigate complex systems such as the rental market and services such as health and education. On many occasions, caseworkers have identified and supported clients in situations of workplace exploitation, domestic violence and child abuse.

The support offered through SRSS has been cited by international and European organisations as a global example of success. This is because it provides a cheaper and more humane alternative to immigration detention with a higher compliance rate. Australia has been commended for supporting people in the community while they work with immigration authorities to resolves their immigration status.

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