Home affairs asked Labor to extend support for asylum seekers as housing market worsens

Exclusive: Refugee advocates say nothing yet done to improve supports and they fear for people who end up with none

The home affairs department asked the Albanese government to consider extending supports for asylum seekers and people on bridging visas to respond to a worsening housing market and the complex needs of more people exiting immigration detention.

That revelation is contained in freedom of information documents, which also include a direction from the immigration minister, Andrew Giles, to the department to streamline reviews to increase releases from immigration detention.

Cohorts up for review include detainees assessed as a low risk to the community, to who Australia owes a protection obligation, who are stateless, have complex health or care needs, or have been in immigration detention for five or more years.

Since its election, the Albanese government has been seeking to use alternatives to immigration detention to help clear what the department called the “intractable” caseload of people held for long periods.

In the brief dated 31 October the department noted many people in long-term immigration detention were unlikely to meet existing guidelines for release due to “a criminal history including where their visa was subject to mandatory cancellation”.

The department proposed “temporarily streamlining” the review process by waiving the guidelines that usually block cases going to the minister. Instead “agreed cohorts of individuals whose cases as a whole could be considered to represent compelling or compassionate circumstances”, it said.

By signing the brief on 14 November, Giles agreed to consider using his personal powers under the Migration Act to grant visas to people in the priority cohorts or allow them to move to community detention.

Since the brief, the department sent 92 cases to the minister for consideration under the new rules, he considered 47 and intervened in 30.

Lawyers for refugees and asylum seekers have noted an increase in releases of people in low-risk cohorts, such as those without a criminal record. In April, 1,128 people were still in detention, down from 1,315 on 31 October.

In the brief the department noted that people released from immigration detention were eligible for status resolution support services (SRSS), which in some cases grants “up to four weeks where they require assistance to transition into life in the community”.

This included “accommodation, an initial payment … a basic starter package of appropriate staple food items”, it said. Income support through SRSS is pegged at a maximum of 89% of jobseeker or family assistance benefits.

The department noted that people set for release “in many cases are long-term detained and have complex status resolution barriers” including time in criminal custody before immigration detention who had “not resided in the Australian community for many years or in some cases ever”.

“Many of these individuals will require more intensive support for longer periods of time due to these factors.

“Further there are environmental factors such as pressure in housing and rental markets that will impact the ability of individuals to secure stable accommodation even with support of SRSS providers.”

The department asked the minister to consider extending “eligibility arrangements for SRSS transitional supports for individuals released from immigration detention”.

Paul Power, the chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, said it was “good to see cases put in the too-hard basket are being addressed”.

Due to Coalition-era cuts to SRSS and tightened eligibility, the amount paid had fallen from $300m in 2016-17 to $15m for 2022-23, he said. The number of people receiving the payment had decreased from 29,000 six years ago to just 1,500.

“There are more than 100,000 people on bridging visas. They don’t have access to any safety net at all. Many are working, but our greatest concern is the 10 to 15,000 who have no income at all, who are homeless or at serious risk of homelessness,” Power said.

The government was “theoretically committed to doing something” about eligibility for supports but “nothing has happened so far, and that’s not going to help people who end up with no support”, he said.

Jana Favero, the director of advocacy at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, said “it is positive that the Albanese government is taking commonsense and compassionate measures to get people out of the rotten detention regime”.

Favero said SRSS support was “welcome” but “there are significant limitations and reform is needed, including to eligibility criteria and the rate”.

“There is a national housing and cost-of-living crisis, which is particularly felt by those most marginalised in our community, including people seeking asylum.”

A spokesperson for the department said: “SRSS is not a social welfare program. Support provided under the SRSS program is dependent on a range of factors including immigration status, needs and vulnerabilities.”

A government spokesperson said the SRSS support “may include financial, accommodation, healthcare, education for school aged children and case worker support”.

“The government continues to assess individual detainees’ suitability for community placements, with first priority being the safety of the Australian community.

“If individuals do not pose a threat to the Australian community or themselves, they should be living in the community until a durable solution is finalised.”


Paul Karp Chief political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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