A group of principals and teachers have this week launched the No Child Left Behind campaign, calling on the federal government to prevent children and families becoming homeless and destitute in the current economic downturn.
A driving force behind the campaign, retired NSW principal Dorothy Hoddinott AO, said she and her fellow educators are deeply troubled that around 16,000 children seeking asylum and their families are being left with no financial support during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some without access to Medicare. Many people seeking asylum have lost work as a result of COVID-19 and are now struggling to make ends meet.
“The measure of a just society is care and concern for its most vulnerable people, regardless of their visa or citizenship status. That is at the heart of this issue – we must care for all the people in our community. It is a question of basic fairness. We shouldn’t be seeing families and children slipping into destitution because they don’t have access to support. We’ve gone beyond that. We live in 2020 and despite the current crisis, Australia is a wealthy country and has the capacity to support those struggling, including children of families seeking asylum”, Mrs Hoddinott said.
“If we want to be regarded as a fair society, we need to look after the most vulnerable, which includes those who don’t have any form of safety net. At my school, we fed about 120 students, 3 mornings a week, because we found that about 60% didn’t have any breakfast. Many of these were from families, including those seeking asylum, who had to make hard decisions about how many meals they could feed their children every day. It’s obvious to me as a teacher and educator that families need the security of a social safety net for their children to get by. Children don’t learn on an empty stomach. We can’t allow this to happen in Australia, it’s a question of basic decency.”
Hannah Clarke, a primary school teacher in the western suburbs of Melbourne has a number of students seeking asylum at her school. She has seen the stress and anxiety many of their families have faced as a result of COVID-19.
“As soon as COVID-19 broke out and people started losing work, I became worried about the children seeking asylum at our school. I have been calling families seeking asylum regularly to check-in. Many have lost work and some still don’t have access to Medicare, so can’t go to the local doctor. The school started a mini food bank where families can come and collect supplies if they are struggling and many families seeking asylum are taking this up. The impacts are huge. I notice the lack of support for these families every day.”
Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said that many people seeking asylum have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19, as they often work in the service sectors worst affected, yet they are not eligible for the JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments, like many other workers.
“COVID-19 does not discriminate, and neither should access to a safety net or assistance during this time. We are in this together and there must be support for all who need it, regardless of visa status,” Mr Power said.
“Currently around 97,000 people seeking asylum who live in our communities are being left with no safety net. It will be particularly hard for this group to re-enter the workforce, especially in the current economy. It’s challenging for this group to access emergency relief and even if they can it doesn’t cover their rent and other expenses. What will happen to these families when the eviction moratorium is lifted in September?”
“This is Refugee Week, which is dedicated to celebrating the contribution of refugees to our communities. Yet at this critical time people who came to Australia to seek refuge are being facing destitution and homelessness.”
Dorothy Hoddinott said that teachers have noticed the absence of their students from refugee backgrounds since the wake of COVID-19.
“As restrictions came into effect, schools scrambled to provide laptops and internet dongles to families who could not afford to pay for internet. We heard of children going hungry because they could no longer access their school’s breakfast program at a time when they needed it most. We’ve heard from parents who have not been able to pay their rent since March and are dreading the day the moratorium on evictions is lifted. The prospect of significant rental arrears, sustained unemployment and no support from the Federal government is the reality for many families seeking asylum. Fears of becoming homeless keep many parents awake at night. We see the impact this has on their children,” Mrs Hoddinott said.
“We urge Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston to immediately address this crisis in our communities. We cannot stand by while our families struggle to make ends meet.”
A coalition of educators, parents, students and civil society organisations are calling on the government to expand eligibility to JobSeeker, Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) to people seeking asylum on bridging visas for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic downturn. Their joint statement can be found here.
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