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With empty hands: How the Australian Government is forcing people seeking asylum into destitution


This report tells the story of over 30,000 people seeking asylum in Australia, and the Australian Government has, in various ways, denied them access to work, study, income and much-needed health services.]The report tells the story of people like Rajan, who came seeking safety and found himself living in the shadows. They have lived for years in our detention centres, and then lived in our community without the right to work or study. Once they had the right to work, they struggled to find work with their short-term visas and their English skills. They struggled to renew their visas and their Medicare cards, meaning there were times when they could not look for a job or get the healthcare they needed. For years, they were denied the right to apply for asylum and then, once they got it, they found they couldn’t get any legal help.

Now, they are still waiting for a decision years and struggling to get through every day. For many, their lifeline is a support program that provides 89% of a Newstart allowance, or around $35 a day. Yet this too is now being taken away from them, with an estimated 7,000 likely to lose all income in the next few months because of yet more punitive policy changes. People will lose their homes, have to stop taking vital medication, go hungry so their children can eat, and end up in work where they are exploited.

This is the first report to explain the bewildering and ever-changing policies that have led us here. It reflects the voices of people seeking asylum and those who work with them, gathered through our national annual consultations in 2016 and 2017.

Executive summary

With empty hands we cannot do anything. It’s like you ask me to paint this wall without giving me any paint and brush and I ask ‘how can I do it’ and you respond ‘I don’t know, just do it’.

— Ali, seeking asylum in Perth

For years, Australia has been punishing people who need our protection. We have been turning back the boats which were carrying them to safety, and shipping and warehousing them in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. If they make it to mainland Australia, we have been detaining them indefinitely and, once they are released, leaving them to struggle in the community without support.

There have been many reports about our policies of offshore processing and detention. This report focuses on what happens to tens of thousands of people seeking asylum who are living in our community, and the policies that drive these highly vulnerable people to the margins of society. It follows our 2015 report which explored community views on asylum policy. This report explains how people seeking asylum have been, in various ways, denied access to work, study, income and much-needed health services. The kinds of services and supports available to people seeking asylum change depending on how and when they came to Australia, the stage of the process they are in, and the visas they have (or did have). Services and supports also vary between and within States and Territories. Even then, the conditions of their visas (if any) often seem arbitrary, and there is little to no transparency in decision-making. On top of this, there are frequent, often unannounced, changes to people’s eligibility for services and supports.

In 2018, more policy changes are likely to leave thousands more without any income or government-funded support. As well, policies that punished people seeking asylum increasingly apply to those who came by plane, as well as by boat. These changes add to existing policies that are already driving thousands of people to destitution. Every day, more and more people needing our protection are forced to rely on overstretched and overwhelmed communities and non-governmental organisations to survive.

This report reflects the voices of people seeking asylum and those who work with them, gathered through our annual consultations in recent years. People have told us about the impact of these policies on their health, their lives and their children. Service providers have also told us of the unprecedented strain on charities and non-governmental organisations, and on the ordinary Australians who volunteer, support and work for them.

People who need our protection should not be punished for seeking it. They should not be forced to choose between starving in the streets or returning home to persecution. They should not be treated as if they are not human, simply because they are not (yet) Australian.

Read the full report

You can download the report here. You can read it in PDF or continue to read it in html. With Empty Hands FINAL
Size : 2 MB Format : PDF

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