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

Recent changes causing destitution

Recent changes causing destitution

In recent years, Government policies and practices have forced many people seeking asylum to destitution. While current and proposed changes to the SRSS program are the most significant, other changes should be noted.

Inconsistent grant of work rights

From 2012 to 2015, almost everyone seeking asylum who came by boat was barred from working, as a condition of their bridging visas. Currently, the general policy is to grant work rights to those who came by boat and are living in the community (on a bridging visa E) while they are waiting for an initial decision (by the Department of Home Affairs) or a review of that decision (by the Immigration Assessment Authority).

If a person is found to be a refugee, he or she will be granted a temporary protection visa with work rights. Otherwise, their bridging visa will expire 28 days after the review decision, and they will need to apply for another bridging visa. The general policy for people waiting for a court decision is that, if work rights were granted previously, they will be granted again.

For many people, renewing bridging visas is a challenging and lengthy process. For some people, the Minister for Immigration personally needs to allow them to apply for another bridging visa (‘lifting the bar’). This often means there is a gap between their bridging visas, which affects their employment. However, they are not the only ones who experience this delay. Many of our member organisations and people seeking asylum have told us of difficulties in renewing bridging visas and therefore retaining work rights, often for no apparent reason.

We have also heard many times that even when the bridging visas are renewed, work rights are inconsistently granted. People seeking asylum who came by plane routinely report that they have lost their work rights when they applied for a bridging visa and have no way of supporting themselves. Some have been forced to leave work as a result and become homeless and destitute. Many spoke of this as a punitive measure to force them to leave Australia before their application is finalised, especially as it is now taking several years for the Department to decide claims for protection for people who have come by plane.

Renewing Medicare and cost of healthcare

The current policy is that most people with a bridging visa E have access to Medicare. In practice, many people find it difficult to renew their Medicare cards.

The most significant challenge is for people on short bridging visas, who need to apply for a new Medicare card every few months. People need to go to a Medicare office to renew their Medicare cards as they have to be seen before a new card is issued (this can be as frequent as every six weeks). At times, they are not issued with an interim Medicare number and are forced to wait for days, or often weeks, until they receive the card in the mail.

People also have been refused a new Medicare card because their identification card (Immicard) appears to have expired, as Medicare staff are unaware that they need to check visa status online. The most common feedback is that people’s experiences have differed greatly depending on the Medicare office they use, as some Medicare workers are unfamiliar with dealing with people seeking asylum.

Gaps in Medicare access can have profound impacts on people with serious health issues. People who are on a treatment plan suddenly cannot visit their doctor and continue with the treatment unless they pay hundreds of dollars.

People seeking asylum are also not eligible for a Low Income Healthcare Card, which means that they have to pay the full cost of medications if they are not on the SRSS program. For those with chronic physical health issues, this can amount to thousands of dollars a month.

People who come by plane on another visa and then seek asylum are often on other kinds of bridging visas without access to Medicare. For this group, if they are unable to access SRSS, they need to pay the full cost of healthcare and medications with no subsidies.

Transitioning out of community detention

In recent years, the number of people in community detention has generally decreased as people were granted bridging visas. While this has been welcomed by some because of the restrictions of community detention, it also means people are either transferred to an SRSS Band with more limited support or to no support at all.

All unaccompanied minors are transferred to other programs with much less support when they turn 18 years old, a sudden transition that many of them find confronting and stressful.

In September 2017, over 60 people who had been transferred to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island for health or protection reasons and had been living in community detention in Australia were granted ‘final departure’ bridging visas with no SRSS support. This forced them into destitution, as they could not support themselves because of their significant health challenges and because until the grant of the bridging visa they never had work or study rights so were unable to gain work experience or improve their skills and knowledge. They continue to be barred from studying. There are over 300 people who face a similar risk if they are exited from community detention without access to funded SRSS support.

Support on the SRSS program

In 2014, when the SRSS program replaced previous programs, the number of clients a caseworker had to support increased significantly. The program also shifted towards ensuring compliance, rather than offering holistic casework support.

Many clients, especially those on Band 6, lost their dedicated caseworker and mainly spoke to the SRSS service providers through occasional phone calls. To get assistance, they often needed to call the agency’s hotline or attend the agency’s drop-in centre. This made it much more difficult for caseworkers (usually qualified and experienced social workers) to work effectively with clients and to identify concerns relating to mental health, family issues or worker exploitation.

There has also been a drastic decrease in the number of clients on Bands 3 and 5, which both allow for more intensive casework. Some service providers have told us of their many unsuccessful attempts to keep their clients on some form of support (usually Band 5), especially those vulnerable clients who could not get Band 6 support after an unfavourable decision at review stage. In one example, the Department finally agreed to keep a homeless man with a brain tumour on Band 5 but only agreed to pay the cost of his healthcare without offering him any other financial assistance.

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