Refugee Council of Australia
Charcoal drawing of open hands

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

Struggling in the shadows

The drastic reduction of income support to people seeking asylum comes after years of policies that have marginalised people seeking asylum and forced them into destitution.

Struggling to work

From 2012 to 2015, almost everyone seeking asylum who came by boat could not lawfully work, as a condition of their bridging visas. Many thousands of people lost years of their lives, because they could not work or use the time to study to get work. The policy caused enormous suffering.

This policy was largely reversed in 2015, in one of the few welcome policy changes in recent years. Now, the general policy is to grant work rights to those who came by boat with a Bridging Visa E, while they are waiting for the Department’s decision on their refugee claim or the review of that decision.

If a person is found to be a refugee, he or she will be granted a temporary protection visa with work rights. Otherwise, their bridging visa will expire 28 days after the review decision. If they want to seek judicial review of that decision at a court, they will need to apply for another bridging visa. The general policy for people waiting for a court decision is that, if work rights were granted previously, they will be granted again.

However, there are still a significant number of people living in our community without the right to work. On 31 January 2018, 6,790 people with a bridging visa E did not have the right to work lawfully in the community. Service providers and people seeking asylum frequently tell us about cases where people faced difficulties in renewing their bridging visas, or keeping their work rights after their visas are renewed, often for no apparent reason.

People seeking asylum who came by plane routinely report that they have lost their work rights when they applied for a bridging visa and have no way of supporting themselves. Some have been forced to leave their jobs as a result, and become homeless and destitute. Many spoke of this as a punitive measure to force them to leave Australia before their application is finalised, especially as it is now taking several years for the Department to decide claims for protection for people who have come by plane.

For example, at a consultation in Sydney Abel told us he came to Australia on a valid visa, but when he claimed asylum:

They took off my work rights. The Department took it off. I had all of these expenses. I had a job. The people who I was working for were okay with my situation. They said, ‘as long as you have work rights, you can continue to work no problem’. But immigration did not want me to have work rights. They put me in a financial situation where I defaulted on a lot of payments. I defaulted on all credit cards and I was in arrears in the place I was staying in.

They just want you to sit and wait, so you will sit and wait for years. Or maybe they want you to work illegally so that you break the rules. I don’t understand why they take off work rights. I was also studying a course, at a college. They took off my study rights. And so after paying all the fees, I just basically lost that as well. No one can explain it. If someone is willing to work and able to work and the employers are willing to accept them, then they should be allowed to work. I have qualifications. I have a computer science degree, but I have not been working for 3 years. I feel like I have been outside the industry for too long, I do not know if I will be able to go back in even if I get my work rights back.

—Abel, seeking asylum and living in Sydney

Short-term bridging visas

When I apply for jobs, they ask for visa status and I say I have the right to work in Australia. But then they check and find I only have a three month visa. So, I lost one job. I did online registration and completed a form and when they asked me about visa status, they said ‘oh, maybe I’ll call you later’ and I never heard from them.

—Maniam, seeking asylum and living in Perth

Bridging visas are granted to people so they can lawfully live in the community while waiting for the resolution of their immigration status. People who arrived in Australia by boat are usually given a bridging visa E (BVE) to release them from detention.

Bridging visas expire after a set time and must be renewed. In late 2013, the Department of Immigration stopped renewing the expired bridging visas. As a result, a significant number of people continued to live in the community with no visas and in fear of being re-detained. They were also unable to look for jobs. It was not until mid-2015 that people started to have their expired bridging visas renewed again.

Since then, people have been routinely granted short-term bridging visas, usually for 3 to 6 months. We have heard, however, of many instances of visas as short as a week.

It appears that people who have been unsuccessful in claiming refugee status are more likely to get an extremely short bridging visa, while being expected to support themselves without any government-funded support.

What are they to do? We have a client who has been on a week to week visa for months, and then immigration turned around and said, ‘Yeah, you can apply for work rights, but you’re on week to week visas’

—Kate, staff member at a charity, Sydney

Unsurprisingly, people find it very hard to get a job with short-term visas. We have heard countless stories of people who were repeatedly turned down for jobs after they told the employers about the length of their bridging visas. One person told us he was successful in two interviews for a job in information technology but did not hear back from the employer when he told them about his visa. Others resorted to low skilled jobs because they never got a chance to work in jobs they were qualified for because of their visas. We heard about people with engineering degrees working in abattoirs.

As explained next, short-term bridging visas also make it hard for people to get healthcare. This is mainly because of the issues associated with renewing Medicare cards every time a person gets a new bridging visa.

Some people also face challenges when it comes to renewing their bridging visas. This is because, for some people, they need permission from the Minister for Immigration himself before their visas can be renewed. This often means there is a gap between their bridging visas, meaning they cannot get healthcare or look for jobs during this time. On 31 December 2017, there were 1,815 people in the community waiting for the grant of further Bridging Visa E, meaning they did not have permission to live lawfully in the community and therefore were unable to work, study or access Medicare. In recent months, a large group of people seeking asylum have been granted longer bridging visas. This group mainly includes those who have recently lodged their protection visa applications. Their bridging visas are often valid until 28 days after the review decision. However, many others continue to face delays and difficulties in renewing their bridging visas, or are granted short-term visas.

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