Dignity not Destitution

Changes to Support Services for People Seeking Asylum

Program Partners

Refugee Council of Australia
Red Cross Australia

The foundational principle of the campaign Dignity NOT Destitution is the belief that no person lawfully residing in Australia should be forced into destitution through the removal of access to financial and housing supports.

Up to 12,000 people seeking asylum in Australia may be at risk of losing core services and financial support due to Government changes in the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS).  Charities are already struggling to support destitute asylum seekers, but this level of destitution will be unprecedented.

Read about why this is a deep concern for people seeking asylum as well as Churches and Charities. You CAN take action to support.

Background

Up to 12,000 people seeking asylum in Australia may be at risk of losing core services and financial support due to Government changes in the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS).

The SRSS is a regular payment to help with basic living costs for those who live in Australia and are waiting for a decision about their immigration status.  The current SRSS program has different levels of support (‘bands’), depending on the circumstances of the person on the program.

In the past 6 months this program has been drastically reduced leaving many people with no form of financial or service assistance.  Charities and food banks around the country have reported a significant increase in the presentation of people seeking asylum who are destitute as a result of the reduction of services.

The Red Cross who has been a provider of services for asylum seekers for 25 years and is the largest provider in the country of SRSS has not had its contract renewed. There are fears that the number of people who will become destitute is only going to rise placing extraordinary pressure on charities and welfare agencies around Australia.

ACRT will join the Refugee Council of Australia, the ASRC and others to campaign for the restoration of key support services for asylum seekers in the belief that;

No person lawfully residing in Australia should be forced into destitution through the removal of access to financial and housing supports.

Currently, there is no agency in Australia funded by Government to work with this specific group of people.  They are surviving on emergency handouts from a range of charities, and living with friends or community members, often in vulnerable or unstable conditions.

Why are people being removed from basic financial supports?

There are two main categories of people who have been removed from financial assistance after seeking Australia’s Protection. The first situation is people who have had their financial, casework and/or counselling support cancelled due to a range of reasons which may include:

  • Sending money to family overseas from the allocation of their SRSS financial support which has totalled more than $1,000 in a 12 month period.
  • Having been assessed as ‘job ready’ in regard to their fitness to work and will be expected to find work.
  • A breach of the code of conduct for Bridging Visa holders living in the community through minor infringements.
  • People who have arrived by plane, and are ineligible for SRSS until their substantive (eg. tourist, student, partner) visa has expired, even if financial circumstances change (eg. For reasons of family violence, loss of assets back home etc.)

Why is this a challenge?

People who seek asylum in Australia often have family left behind who they are desperately worried about.  Although the allocation of 89% of a standard Centrelink payment is not much, there are times when people support each other to save as much as they can for their families who may be in desperate circumstances. For the Australian Government to tell them what to do with their own money and then punish them if they do support family overseas, is undignified and potentially a breach of privacy.

Being able to work is often a great desire for asylum seekers and refugees.  Working not only brings financial benefits but has significant social capital and can improve the self-confidence of a person living in a new culture.  However, there are many challenges for newly arrived individuals in gaining employment that go beyond a simple assessment of being ‘job ready’ by a generalist employment service.

Some of these challenges include a lack of recognition by many employers of work experience overseas. Without Australian based work experience many people find it difficult to secure employment.  A lack of proficient language skills, bias or discrimination on racial or religious grounds or a lack of understanding of the Bridging Visa system can all contribute to an inability to secure employment.

Whilst a person may be considered to be ‘job ready’ by a generalist employment service, securing employment is a whole other challenge.  Removing people from financial support merely because they are considered ‘job ready’ can mean a person will be destitute for an extended time before securing employment to support themselves and their family. Furthermore, the compounding stressors of being destitute can further prevent a person from securing employment due to impacts on their mental health.

The second group are people whose claim for protection has been considered ‘finally determined’ by Home Affairs.  This means they have not been recognised as a refugee.  The policy of removing the financial means to live from this group of people has a long history, having been in place for many years.

Home Affairs considers a person finally determined when:

  • a person was refused the grant of the visa and has not sought merits review of that decision within the period allowed to seek merits review; or
  • the Immigration Assessment Authority (IAA) or the Administrative Appeals Tribunal have affirmed the decision to refuse to grant the visa; or
  • a person has been refused the grant of the visa and that decision cannot be reviewed at the IAA as they are an excluded  applicant.

Why are we concerned about people being removed from SRSS?

The situations that lead to people being removed from SRSS and therefore all financial supports mean people can be destitute in the community for months at a time, or even years before their situation is resolved.

It is predicted that overall in the so called ‘legacy caseload’ there could be up to 12,000 people who will be removed from financial assistance over the coming 3 years. This level of destitution for asylum seekers is unprecedented and will bring considerable challenges for support and advocacy.  Much of the burden will fall on faith based agencies, churches and charities to try to support.

The Australian Christian Churches Taskforce disagrees with this policy and believes that Government should not be removing essential supports whilst people still have legal status in Australia.  Furthermore, the Government should not be dictating the personal and lawful affairs of asylum seekers people seeking asylum who are already in a distressful situation including punishing them for their personal decisions.

However, we are also aware that creating change may take some time.  In the meantime we are concerned that these people do find a safe place to live and basic supports.  The ACRT campaign #dignitynotdestitution will focus on advocacy to change the policy but also encouraging individuals and churches to host asylum seekers who may find themselves destitute until their situation changes.  Whilst we do not consider that the churches and charities should have to fill the gap of this cruel policy, we also recognise that we cannot stand aside and allow people to become destitute in our own community.

Evidence base #dignitynotdestitution

Lack of income raises immediate concerns for any person in the community.  The result of destitution can include including homelessness, poor physical and mental health and nutrition, as well as social isolation. At a crucial time where a person who has sought protection is trying to deal with the trauma of their flight from their home country and the uncertainty of a safe future, the compounding impact of destitution can be devastating.

The impact of destitution on asylum seekers health, welfare and capacity to participate in their immigration process was acknowledged by the then Department of Immigration, when the forerunner of the SRSS program (the Community Care Pilot) was first created in 2009.

When health and welfare issues are stabilised, clients are better able to think clearly,
exercise choice and participate in resolution of their immigration status.

A UK study on the nature of coping with destitution notes that even when people seeking asylum can find ways to support themselves outside of formal employment, many of the relationships formed or transactions negotiated are ultimately unequal in power and therefore disempowering and potentially harmful.

“Some relationships are overtly transactional, with destitute asylum seekers providing childcare, cooking and/or housework, and sometimes sex, in exchange for meals, cash, shelter, or other daily necessities”.

In Australia a number of agencies who work with those facing destitution also note that the context is precarious and can involve exploitation, violence and abuse on a range of levels.

A Hotham Mission study on asylum homelessness noted:

“Their [asylum seekers'] unfamiliarity with the service system and Australian culture makes them especially vulnerable to exploitation by unregulated crisis accommodation facilities and unscrupulous tenants residing there. Associated issues such as violence, racial intimidation and abuse or theft can further traumatise asylum seekers with vulnerabilities.”

If the Government really is interested in asylum seekers resolving their immigration status as quickly as possible, forcing people into destitution is analogous to this aim.  As the Community Care pilot found in 2009, stable health and subsistence for asylum seekers is the best way to achieve an expedient resolution of immigrations status whilst providing the dignity that all people deserve.