Refugee Council of Australia
Charcoal drawing of open hands

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

Punishing the most vulnerable

The suite of policies and practices explored in this report has punished those who need our protection most. The Australian Government has driven these people into the shadows, unable to fulfil their basic needs or exercise their human rights.

They have had to scrape by in Australia, typically without networks, on 89% of a living allowance that is itself widely condemned as inadequate. 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 support and to help them to navigate complex and unfamiliar systems.

Cutting people’s only source of income just because they have work rights, with complete disregard for the vulnerabilities of the most needy is unfair and cruel. It will have severe consequences for people’s access to housing, healthcare, 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.

These policies will delay and probably deny many of these people the ability to settle in Australia. Again and again, we have heard of the enormous damage done to their mental health. The recent decision to cut access to income and casework support for 60% of people already on the programs is likely to be the tipping point for many, driving them to acts of desperation, including acts of self-harm.

The voluntary sector, including many people from refugee communities themselves, also have been feeling the impact of these changes. The sector is already exhausted and overwhelmed after years of responding to the effects of punitive policies, and the long-term nature of support required will be beyond the resources of most.


A lot of the support of these people is falling back on the generosity of volunteers, often with no recognition. From this there are people becoming homeless and destitute, family issues, child safety issues. It’s really difficult to find alternative accommodation for families … We’re running a campaign at the moment trying to raise money just to help keep some of these families paying rent so they can keep a place – many of them can’t afford anything. They’ve got no money for food, no money for rent. They’re living in this hell with nowhere to go or no support. There is no plan for them.

—Belinda, staff member of a community organisation, Brisbane

All the time my son says that his classmates went on holiday but we just spend the time at home or maybe the park behind our house, not any further. We stay home because we can’t buy anything, we have to stay at home to control money.

— Ishaq, seeking asylum and living in Sydney

Without the financial and casework support that SRSS provides, many people will be unable to pay their rent and utility bills, or buy food and medicine. They will be forced into homelessness and destitution. We have heard countless stories of people not purchasing essential medication so their children can eat.

The consequences of these policies will be borne by the community elsewhere. Hospitals will see more people coming through their emergency room doors as they are not able to afford their medications. Homelessness services will see more people — including families with young children — waiting on their doorsteps for help.

We see people with conditions like diabetes and ongoing health issues who come on and off their medications and that has a huge impact on their health. So if you stop and start based on whether or not you were able to feed your family that week, your health is not going to be great.

—Damon, staff of a community organisation, Melbourne

In some of our consultations, many people seeking asylum told us of the impact of destitution on their parenting abilities. They talked about conflicts with their children and feeling ashamed for not being able to provide for their children. They worried that their children thought they were incompetent parents, and they feared for the future of their children.

The support available to people depends greatly on where they live. The Victorian Government has stepped in on several occasions and provided support to people when the Federal Government had denied them assistance. Victoria, New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, South Australia and Queensland have offered this group public transport concessions, so they can get to the appointments and to organisations that can support them. In contrast, those living in Western Australia do not have any transport concessions and, if they present at hospitals while they do not have Medicare, they will be charged the ‘international’ rate.

Killing us step by step

We came here because we have lots of problem in our country. 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 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’s like poisoning our food. Every day a little bit by bit, till the end when we die.

— Nasim, seeking asylum and living in Sydney

There is a mental health crisis among people seeking asylum. People have told us again and again, with ever-increasing urgency, that people seeking asylum are feeling increasingly hopeless, trapped and uncertain about the future. They are dealing with the fallout of punitive policies, broken relationships, and constant anxiety, fear and social isolation.

Most of the counsellors and mental health professionals who spoke to us stated that giving hope to this group is almost impossible. As Eve, a counsellor in Melbourne, told us:

The basic essential [of the counselling framework] is about establishing safety but people seeking asylum don’t have that. Being told that they will never have permanent protection in Australia, where can you start in terms of recovering when that is everything in their world to begin with. This means I will never see my family again unless I return to the place where I was tortured and where I fled from. … We might provide a connection, like any service can, a connection with people and establish some trust with them and advocate in some areas but there’s basically nobody that really can help.

We will explore in more detail in a future report the effects of these policies on the mental health of people seeking asylum. People seeking asylum have spoken to us of their hopelessness and their depression. A growing number has resorted to self-harm and even suicide. Many people have spoken about how the policies that prevent family reunion and their employment have led to the breakdown of relationships with families living overseas in situations of extreme danger and poverty.

Some of those have spoken of their constant anger, which is increasingly making it more difficult for frontline workers especially if they have to give bad news.

For others, such as Amir, the dominant feeling is one of fear:

We are always afraid, afraid to do anything and then there is a consequence.

—Amir, seeking asylum and living in Perth

Many people told us about being scared of answering their phones, worried it might be from immigration with bad news. They also feared the prospect of being detained again or deported.

Suffer the children

The other thing we are concerned about is families of these [bridging] visas holders, kids who go to school and speak like an Aussie. They go to school they speak the same language and all sorts of things. But their parents always say ‘oh we don’t know what’s going to happen’. Kids are in a funny space, ok they are resilient they will manage, but we don’t see what’s going on in their minds and how they see their identity. What the kids go through is something we need to look at. It’s not just Tamils, its other communities as well.

—Chakresh, Tamil community leader, Sydney

These policies also punish children and teenagers. Families with children are now facing destitution and homelessness. Some children are likely to have had their education interrupted before they came to Australia because of discrimination at home countries or lack of access to education in countries in transit. Destitution in Australia is likely to deprive them of more schooling, as they are forced to move schools or are too hungry or stressed to concentrate at school.

Parents and service providers were also concerned about the challenging behaviour exhibited by their children who struggle with their sense of identity. They mentioned that the limbo and the anxiety of return affect their children greatly, as they worry about having to return to countries they do not remember or at times do not identify with. Their children are frustrated that they are not able to plan for their future, unlike their classmates, and bright students have no motivation to excel at HSC as they cannot afford to study at university.

My eldest son, after 4 years of schooling here, he was telling us if we are going to have to go back to Iran, he is not going to let that happen, he said even if they push me because I have been here for 4 years and I don’t like to go back to that country. Australia is my country and this is my school and like I said if the Australian government pushes us to go back, this is not going to happen.

– Ashraf, seeking asylum in Sydney

Many of these children will be recognised as refugees eventually and live in Australia for years. With a lifetime of limbo ahead, our current policies are setting them up to fail.

Overworked and overwhelmed

It’s something we are constantly struggling with, particularly as more people are getting to the point where they have no other options. And we know for some people there is no way to go back home and be safe. Caseworkers have to have those conversations over and over again. It does impact on you. With our organisation, we’ve got monthly supervision with a clinical supervisor. I think that helps. We try to debrief with each other as much as possible. But you just go home sometime and think what have I done for anyone this week?

– A staff member at a charity organisation, Sydney

The voluntary sector, including many charities and community legal centres, has been responding for many years to the fallout from the Government’s punitive policies. Charities have been working long hours, usually with a small number of paid staff and a pool of dedicated volunteers, to make sure people have a roof over their heads for the night and enough food to survive. Community legal centres mobilised again and again to support people in the face of outlandish deadlines set up by the Australian Government.

However, in recent years many organisations have also told us of the toll this has taken on their staff. The voluntary sector is rarely informed about policy changes and almost never consulted. This creates an environment of uncertainty and significant challenges for future planning, including fundraising and recruitment.

They do not know the needs they have to respond to, and cannot predict what the next policy will be and how many people it will affect. Staff and volunteers are also affected by witnessing the level of vulnerability and the knowledge that their finite resources mean they have to turn some people away. People seeking asylum are ineligible for most mainstream services. This means the charities and community legal centres have no external support to tap into when their client number increases.

The sector has collaborated and responded, as best as it can, to the needs of people without anywhere else to go. However, they cannot meet the needs of thousands more vulnerable men, women and children in the next few months.

Be a champion for refugee rights

Join our mailing list and be the first to receive active resources. We need you to show Australia cares about refugees.


  • Category

  • Topic