Refugee Council of Australia
Charcoal drawing of open hands

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

Struggling to study

People seeking asylum have been given no or very little support by the government to learn English. Unlike resettled refugees who can get at least 510 hours of government-funded English language classes, people seeking asylum do not get any government support to learn English. For a short period, they could access 45 hours of government-funded English classes over six weeks, but that ended several years ago.

While many community organisations offer free English language classes, these are not an adequate replacement for a structured, properly funded English language program that is offered to help people settle in the community.

If people seeking asylum want to study a degree or a vocational course to improve their knowledge, skills, and employability, they need to pay international student fees. Currently, on average, international undergraduate students pay about $15,000 per semester. The cheapest course offered in TAFE is the English language course which costs between $250 and $270 per week in most states. People on bridging visas E who receive income support from the Government only receive $243 per week.

After advocacy by community organisations, academics and peak bodies (including the Refugee Council of Australia), some universities have started to provide scholarships to people seeking asylum. Victoria, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory also offered support to this group to do training free of charge or at reduced rates.

In September 2016, the Victorian Government increased the number of places in the Asylum Seeker VET program from 300 to 3000 places. Through this program people have access to subsidised professional training.

In November 2016, the NSW Government announced that from 1 January 2017 it would give people seeking asylum access to its Smart and Skilled program. This gave this group access to fee-free training up to Certificate IV.

This was followed by the Australian Capital Territory government announcing that it would open up its Skilled Capital program and Australian Apprenticeships to include people on bridging visas and temporary protection visas. The two ACT Government funded programs offer training from Certificate II to Diploma level in many areas.

Unfortunately, in August 2017, the Federal Government changed the SRSS eligibility criteria to make clear that people who are full-time students cannot access the SRSS program, and are expected to support themselves financially in their studies. This has undermined the efforts and the leadership shown by some states and universities. It means that bright and promising young men and women will be forced to stay in low skilled jobs.

The inability to study also affects relationships within families. In several of our consultations, parents told us about how not being able to study English had affected their relationships with their children:

Most of the people who are here are mainly families and they mostly have children. In terms of learning English, the children move much more quickly than adults. They integrate much more easily into the society. The first problem we have is not being able to connect with our children, it affects the parents mentally. And the fact that there are no real and structured opportunities for adults to learn English adds to this issue.

—Hassan, seeking asylum and living in Adelaide

Transitioning out of community detention

In recent years, the number of people in community detention has decreased as people were granted bridging visas instead. While this has been welcomed by some because of the restrictions of community detention, it also means people are given either more limited support on the SRSS program or 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.

This experience was repeated with a second group in May 2018 meaning hundreds of people face a similar risk of being forced to live in the community without any income, after having suffered through the horrors of offshore processing.

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