About two months ago, Peter Dutton’s Department of Home Affairs took a decision that will have momentous consequences. In an initiative, given no publicity, the Minister decided that the substantial majority of asylum seekers awaiting the determination of their applications for refugee status will have their income support terminated.
Without that financial assistance, until now payable pending the resolution of their refugee status, it can reasonably be expected that a very large number of refugees on bridging visas will have insufficient money to pay their rent, cover the costs of education, pharmaceuticals and transport, and perhaps not even have enough cash to purchase sufficient food.
Sometimes it is very difficult to work out how Peter Dutton thinks.
The Status Resolution Support Service Program (SRSS) has been in place in Australia since 2015. It provides support and assistance to people as they wait onshore for the outcome of their refugee applications. This can take up to three years or longer. The program also provides assistance to people who have made successful claims for recognition as refugees and who are in the process of transition to mainstream services in the wider community. This assistance includes financial help, access to accommodation and access to physical and mental health care.
The level of income support provided is far from generous. The payment to asylum seekers eligible for a living allowance is about $478 per fortnight – that is, some 89% of the Newstart allowance – and 89% of the current rate of rental assistance. People with children are entitled to 89% of family tax benefits.
As at 28 February 2018, 13,299 people were receiving this benefit. The Department of Home Affairs has now quietly informed welfare agencies in charge of delivering services under the program that its plan is to reduce the number of people entitled to such financial assistance to approximately 5000 people.
Those 5000 places will be reserved for people with particular vulnerabilities. The remaining 8000, it seems, will be classified as autonomous and, therefore, ready for work. A spokeswoman for the Department stated that “Individuals with a right to work, and who have the capacity to work, are expected to support themselves while their immigration status is being resolved.” This expectation borders on ridiculous.
The vulnerability criteria for SRSS are very tight. A person must demonstrate that they have one or more of the following vulnerabilities: a diagnosed mental health condition; incapacity owing to age; be an unaccompanied child or child at risk; a parent of a child at risk; or a person suffering from torture and trauma. They must also demonstrate that they do not have adequate support in the community to manage independently. From early June, everyone else will be deemed to be ‘work-ready.’
In response to a parliamentary question asked by Senator Nick McKim of the Greens about the proposed changes to eligibility requirements, the Department of Home Affairs answered that:
‘In line with Government and community expectations, the eligibility criteria for SRSS recipients is (sic) reviewed regularly. Changes that are currently being considered focus on people’s capacity for self-agency.’
It’s worth considering some of the obvious obstacles the Government will throw in the path of ‘self-agency’ by the very act of cancelling income support.
First, it is immensely difficult for people on bridging visas to get work. Refugee visa applicants live in a chronic state of uncertainty. They do not know from week to week whether or not they will be permitted to stay in Australia. Naturally, employers are put off by this uncertainty. They do not wish to hire workers who may or not be able to commit to steady, long-term work.
Refugee visa applicants have been given minimal support to learn English. Without a reasonably firm grasp of the language, the prospects of finding work in a competitive labour force environment are extremely slim.
By definition, refugee applicants have no Australian work experience. More than that, most have faced departmentally imposed restrictions on their entitlement to work. Employment agencies, particularly private agencies, are ill-equipped to comprehend the huge psychological and physical barriers that refugees face in approaching work in an entirely new country.
All these deficits combine to render asylum seekers ripe for exploitation. This week I was speaking to a successful applicant for refugee status. He told me that he had been taken on as a driver by Uber. In his first week, he had worked 60 hours. His payment was $600.00. Uber took a cut for management, leaving my refugee friend with a return of about $7.00 an hour, about one-third of the minimum wage.
Housing is the next problem. Without income support, the 8000 or so asylum seekers denied continuing SRSS assistance will not be able to pay their rent. The reality is that most people on bridging visas use their entire SRSS payment for their accommodation. They then rely on charities to cover additional needs like food, clothing and essential household items. It is inevitable that in the private rental market significant numbers on such visas will be evicted. They too will then rely on charities for basic assistance with accommodation and charities are already heavily over-committed.
Recognising the gravity of the problem created by the Commonwealth Government, the Victorian government has set aside an amount of $600,000 to assist those evicted from rental accommodation so they can find alternatives. But this amount too is far less than required avoid the possibility of homelessness.
Even if refugee applicants are able to procure basic accommodation, they still have to pay their utility bills. However, they are ineligible for concessions because they do not possess a Commonwealth Health Card. State Governments may have to step in here, by adjusting the criteria for concessions to enable asylum seekers to obtain the necessary financial assistance.
A third problem relates to health. Asylum seekers not assessed as acutely vulnerable still present with complex health issues that require ongoing care and management. This is hardly surprising given their troubled backgrounds. The Commonwealth Government has indicated that most people seeking asylum will have access to Medicare. This is generous but goes only so far. It is unlikely, for example, that these benighted people will be able to afford their pharmaceuticals.
I have not even begun to talk about the difficulties that asylum seekers awaiting status determinations will have in paying for food, obtaining material aid and accessing public transport.
If ‘self-agency’ is the object, destitution won’t help.
Spencer Zifcak is Allan Myers Professor of Law at the Australian Catholic University. He is a former President of Liberty Victoria and has worked as a senior policy analyst with the Brotherhood of St Laurence.