Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

Living on the margins

Living on the margins

People who are living without accommodation, without any ID, especially refugees and people seeking asylum … they are like a pigeon without wings. They can’t fly. They can’t work. They can’t get access to Medicare. They can’t get proper access to healthcare. They can’t get anything. They are hopeless.

— Afghan community member

Although living in the community is better than detention, living in the community can still be very difficult. People seeking asylum face many challenges: some have no income; most have very little. It is this group of individuals and families who are skipping meals and living in very crowded houses to try and have some money for food. It is difficult to access services. Until recently, most could not work or study. This is the group who have been living on the margins, vulnerable to exploitation and to misery.

We came here because we have lots of problem in our country and we cannot live a good life there. But when we came here they showed us that we couldn’t study or work and do the certain things that people do in a normal life. They are killing us by these things, because the waiting is a waste of time and waste of life. No studying and no working, so no improvement in any kind of life. Just waiting. We have a lot of issues with our thinking ‘what’s gonna happen tomorrow, what will we do tomorrow and we can’t go back to our country. Then here in Australia they don’t even look at us. They are killing us step by step. It affects my everyday life. It’s like killing people, like poisoning our food. Every day a little bit by bit, till the end when we die.

— Iraqi community member

Poverty makes everything hard. Some lawyers reported that clients have been too hungry to give them instructions. People couldn’t afford to travel to access services, to apply for and keep jobs, or travel to meet friends.

With the clients, there is that stress on transport. So if it’s $12 to spend on a train ticket to see your Case Coordinator or its $12 to buy food for your family, I know which opportunity they’re going to be taking.

– Service provider from NSW

There have been some recent welcome changes in 2016: NSW introduced transport concessions for people seeking asylum, following the lead of Victoria and Tasmania. In late 2014, the Australian Government began granting people living in the community the right to work, a policy that was widely welcomed:

[It] made an enormous difference to the lives of individuals when they got work rights. An enormously positive story at the end of something quite punitive.

— Service provider from the ACT

Getting the right to work, however, does not mean people got work. For many people, health issues or having a young child meant they could not work. Others were not ready for work as they had been living in limbo for so long and had been unable to learn English or study. A common problem was that people were only given very short-term visas which made them unattractive to employers. The many different visa types, conditions and stipulations made it difficult for employers to understand what work rights people actually had. This has become even more difficult, as three-month bridging visas became common in the second half of 2016, making it impossible for many to get work.

Despite all these obstacles, many employers remain keen to support people seeking protection in Australia. Sadly, some people who did manage to find work were knowingly exploited:

We have been here for four years and we don’t have existence. We have no legal identity. 80-90% of the people who work, they work cash in hand and get exploited at work. They don’t pay them what they should. I know people who got injured at work but they didn’t report it because they were working cash in hand.

— Iranian community member

These multiple challenges will continue to intensify as the ‘slow track’ process of refugee status determination grinds on. Once rejected, the Department’s policy appears to be that no one is entitled to a bridging visa and work rights are at the individual discretion of those processing the visa applications. This behaviour not only keeps an extremely vulnerable group destitute and unprotected, it puts people at real risk of re-detention.

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