Asylum seekers living in the Australian community are having their income support summarily cut, and being left at risk of destitution, refugee advocacy groups have said.
Some of those who have had their status resolution support service (SRSS) cut arrived in Australia as unaccompanied minors, have since graduated from high school here and won scholarships to university. With the withdrawal of financial support, some have since withdrawn from university because they can not survive while studying.
Others who are studying English or training for a work qualification are being forced to choose between continuing their studies or finding immediate work to support themselves.
Changes to the SRSS regime were imposed late last year, when individual asylum seekers – living legally in the Australian community on bridging visas – were told they were being cut off from their support. But details of the breadth of the policy have become clearer over recent weeks, with more and more asylum seekers affected.
The government has outlined its rationale that asylum seekers judged to be “work-ready” will be required to be working: those who are seeking work, but are unable to find it, or who are studying for work qualifications or to improve their English, will not be eligible for assistance. Many have received letters informing them they have been cut off.
Currently, the SRSS payment is 89% of the Newstart allowance – about $478 a fortnight – and 89% of rent assistance. About 12,000 people currently receive SRSS. Many were banned from working in Australia for years, but have recently had work rights attached to their visa.
It is unclear how many people might be caught up in the changes, but agencies supporting asylum seekers estimate it could affect up to 10,000 people across the country, mainly in Sydney and Melbourne.
SRSS providers, as part of their contracts, are gagged from speaking about the details of government policy on service provision.
Dozens of asylum seekers have already received letters informing them their SRSS has been cut off.
Some have been forced to choose between continuing to study for a qualification – in one instance for a forklift licence – and finding lower-skilled work straight away.
Others have been forced to choose between learning English full-time and immediately entering the workforce.
Refugee advocates have said those stripped of their SRSS are vulnerable to exploitation in the workforce, forced to take any job, under any conditions, in order to survive.
A source familiar with the new policy described it as “deliberately punitive” and pushing asylum seekers towards destitution. “How does homelessness help with integration?”
A Department of Home Affairs spokesperson said: “Individuals on a bridging visa with work rights, and who have the capacity to work, are expected to support themselves while their immigration status is being resolved.”
The spokesperson said studying basic English on a part-time basis would not “automatically” preclude a person’s access to support services.
Melbourne’s Asylum Seeker Resource Centre said the changes to the payments meant individuals and families waiting for their protection claims to be assessed could not pay rent, buy food or access mental healthcare.
The centre said the changes had not been clearly to explained to asylum seekers, and said it was a “cruel twist of irony” to demand higher language requirements of would-be citizens while removing support from those studying English.
“If you don’t support people to meet basic needs, how can they learn to speak English and pass the government’s own proposed language test?” the ASRC’s Jana Favero said.
In Sydney, the principal solicitor with the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, Sarah Dale, said some of the asylum seekers stripped of SRSS had studied and worked ever since arriving in Australia as children, by themselves.
“It’s just further perpetuating this second class of refugees in this country and limiting their opportunity to settle here successfully and to have a bright future,” she said.
“It’s not just a choice of ‘do I continue my studies?’, this is a choice about their future, we are limiting their ability to build a new life for themselves, and to integrate in Australia.”
The Greens’ immigration spokesman, Nick McKim, said cutting support payments to asylum seekers was “unconscionably cruel and punitive”.
“This is a deeply unfair decision which could force people into poverty, homelessness and exploitative jobs,” McKim said. “Many people affected by these cuts are studying, and all of them are trying to rebuild their lives.”
Labor’s immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, said any abuses in the system should be stamped out, but urged the government to “stop playing politics” with vulnerable people.
With Australian Associated Press