Recent changes to the SRSS program
Since August 2017, there have been changes to the SRSS program which have dramatically reduced the number of people eligible for support. This is likely to continue and affect a greater number of people.
The recent changes are:
- People who are studying full-time are no longer eligible and have been exited from the program on this ground;
- People who have transferred more than $1000 to a domestic or overseas bank account over a 12-month period are no longer eligible. This can have great implications for those who transfer money to pay their rent, shared utility bills, and other expenses and is unclear how it will be monitored.
- People on other types of visas (for example students or visitor visas) are no longer eligible while their other (‘substantive’) visa is valid (this can often be years).
These changes were made by the Department through additions to the SRSS Operational Procedures Manual, without consultation. We were alerted to the issue by our organisational members who saw more people seeking support from unfunded agencies as they were refused or lost their access to the SRSS program.
There were many reports of people being exited off SRSS support because they had transferred small amounts of money overseas, for example $50, many years ago. Some were told they would need to pay back thousands of dollars in SRSS support from the date they made the bank transfer, creating significant stress for many.
Eventually, the policy was clarified so that debts could only be incurred for payments made after 3 November 2017, the date the SRSS providers were first notified of this policy. It was also clarified that people would only lose support if there had been transfers amounting to $1000 or more over a twelve-month period.
While we understand debts incurred for payments before 3 November 2017 were reversed, it is unclear if people who had been removed from the program as a result have been able to regain access to support. This is especially of concern as service providers report that it is almost impossible for people to regain access to the program (for example, after they have lost their jobs) or to be escalated to a higher level of support if they become more vulnerable.
There also continues to be cases where people have been refused access to SRSS after losing their jobs because they transferred money overseas. However, that transfer was made from their own income while they were employed. With current government policies denying family reunion to almost all people arriving in Australia by boat, supporting families living in precarious and dangerous situations overseas is the only practical assistance people can offer to their loved ones.
Who will be affected by these changes?
These changes can affect anyone who has an unresolved immigration status and is unable to support themselves. They can affect those who have come to Australia by plane and then sought asylum, as people can no longer get support if they have a valid visa which is not a bridging visa.
These changes can also affect people who may not be seeking asylum but are vulnerable migrants, such as women who came to Australia on a partner visa but find themselves in a situation of domestic violence. They can be left without any financial or healthcare support.
These changes also affect bright young students who are seeking asylum and have won scholarships to university, as those studying can no longer receive support.
This group of people will be added to an already large number of people who have no means of support and are relying on charity to survive because of various government policies. They include people seeking asylum who are seeking judicial review of their negative appeal decision and have been ineligible for SRSS support or people transferred to Australia from Nauru and Manus Island for health and protection reasons to whom the Australian government decided not to extend SRSS support, after they were transitioned out of community detention.
It should be noted that not everyone in the above groups is going to be affected because not everyone is receiving SRSS support (such as people who are currently working). However, after these new changes, the majority will have no safety net and nowhere to go for support if they lose their jobs or their work rights.
Impact of the recent changes
People who are going to be affected by these changes are already living on the margins of our society. They have no other government-funded support other than SRSS. Many had been barred from working for prolonged periods of time and their access to healthcare has been inconsistent.
They have had to scrape by in Australia, typically without networks, on 89% of a living allowance that is widely condemned as inadequate for Australians. In the absence of appropriate and holistic casework support offered through the SRSS model, they often relied on their own communities or overstretched voluntary community organisations for additional support or to navigate various systems, such as health and education. Women fleeing domestic violence were ineligible for most support services, including shelters. Those with a disability are ineligible for support through the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Those people who have been able to work are often not making a sufficient income to support themselves and rely on reduced income support in order to pay for rent, food, and medicine.
Depriving these people of income and casework support will have severe consequences for their access to housing, health care, education, and employment. Many with chronic and life-threatening illnesses will be left on their own to survive, with no access to subsidised healthcare and medication. It will mean many of these people will be at least delayed, and probably denied, the ability to settle for years to come. At its worst, it could be the tipping point for many people and drive them to acts of desperation, including acts of self-harm.
The voluntary sector, including many people from refugee communities themselves, will also feel the impact of these changes. After four years of punitive policy changes, many people and organisations are already exhausted and overstretched, and the long-term nature of support required will be beyond the resources of most.