In February 2017 the Guardian revealed that thousands of individuals who arrived in Australia by boat between August 2012 and December 2013 received letters from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection advising them they had 30 days to lodge their refugee applications.
This follows four years of waiting to be invited to apply, after refugee status determinations stalled and the department now has a backlog of around 30,000 refugee claims. Approximately 12,000 individuals received these letters. If they miss the 30-day deadline, they will join many other asylum seekers already living in the community who have no access to work rights, Centrelink payments, support services or Medicare.
On one day this week I saw three individuals at our medical centre, World Wellness Community Clinic, who are living in Brisbane without financial support, the ability to work and who are Medicare ineligible. The first individual has been in Australia for over three years, travelled alone as a teenager to Christmas Island, was detained, assessed and released into the community where he worked in a legitimate job, paid tax and rent. Despite being of Hazara ethnicity – a group known to be the target of genocide in Afghanistan – through the current appeals system, he has not been approved for refugee status. He has now waited months for deportation or to be returned to a detention centre at an unspecified time.
The second individual is a married man with a child in primary school, a second child born in Australia. The family have been working on renewing their temporary protection visa, which is required every three years. The entire family lost access to Medicare and subsequently existing referrals for tests, specialist clinics at public hospitals and their rights to see a general practitioner have been suspended. Presumably the support services will be reinstated after months of reprocessing and reworking Medicare applications so that the same referrals can be rinsed and repeated.
The third man I saw is of Tamil background, a group known to be targets of forced internal displacement and ethnic cleansing that escalated during Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2006. He has lived in Australia for more than seven years, was studying at university and working part-time to support himself. After extended delays in his refugee application and now a pending appeal, his rights to work, study and receive healthcare have been revoked.
How do these people find food and shelter? This is the extreme dissonance of a government policy that does not reflect the values of Australians. They receive support from Australians – friends, church groups, mosques, temples, support workers they’ve met along the migration pathway who help them out of hours, off the clock, health professionals who donate their time for free at community clinics, lawyers who provide services pro-bono, individuals who give canned food, clothes and money.
The people I know who cannot work do not want to ask for help. I know this because I ask each time I see them if they have food and invariably they drop their heads in shame. They desperately want to be self-sufficient and contribute to the community that has embraced them.
The most exhausting challenge people face is not finding food or shelter but the psychological battle of not knowing if, or when their fate will be decided and enacted. They cannot work or study to distract themselves. They cannot make plans for the future or legitimately grasp hope. They have no avenue to maintain a sense of autonomy or self-worth. We can provide mental health support services but the psychological burden of homelessness, of not being allowed to work and not knowing when you can manage your own life again is immense.
Because of the growing number of people in this situation and the financial strain of pro-bono work, we are now faced with the imminent threat of needing to cap the number of Medicare ineligible people we see. And yet, it is the philanthropic strength of the community that fills the gap that the government has created and offers the safety net to those at their lowest.
There is no doubt most Australians want their peers to have the opportunity to live safely and thrive. So beyond giving money and empathy, we should be asking our government: why is there a backlog of 30,000 people’s refugee claims? Why aren’t these refugee applications processed within 12 months, or even two years? We should demand the Department of Immigration and Border Protection do what they are paid to do: process the applications, make a determination and let people get on with their lives. It really is that simple.