Sarah Puls. Hundreds forced into destitution as crucial support withdrawn.

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The Government’s move to cut support to 576 refugees and asylum seekers is a further blow to an already vulnerable group in their struggle to survive.

Posted 1 December 2020

Across Australia, the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has hit many people hard, with sharp increases in unemployment and homelessness, even among those who had been regularly employed and with good connections and work history.

In the middle of the pandemic, with the country focused on finding a way to ‘Covid-normal’, a group of extremely vulnerable people, people who live among us, are being forced by the Federal Government into destitution with no safety net.

Harming the most vulnerable

Australian governments of recent years have seemingly mastered the dark arts of perpetrating harm on people who come to Australia seeking safety from persecution in their home countries.

It is done in myriad ways, from turning people away at the airport before they are even able to explain their need for protection, to making people wait many years before they are permitted an interview and the opportunity to tell their stories of fear and escape.

Some of the people who arrived in Australia by boat since 2013 (not all — the inconsistency is part of the cruelty) were forcibly removed from Australia and sent to offshore processing centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where they were supposed to have their refugee claims processed.

Later, some of those people were brought to Australia for treatment for significant health issues, and ended up living in the community without visas in what is commonly referred to as ‘community detention’. They were transferred for serious medical reasons, including heart disease, strokes, cancer, major depressive disorders, psychosis, traumatic withdrawal syndrome, and autoimmune diseases.

Whether or not their health improved, these people, individuals and families, were not allowed to work, were not allowed to find their own housing, were not allowed even to apply for a visa. While many were recognised as refugees by processes in PNG or Nauru, their refugee status was not considered by the Australian Government, which continued with the policy that meant they could never make Australia their home.

And yet they live here in the Australian community. Like the traveller in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they are our neighbours in every sense. And they are being beaten and left by the side of the road.

In 2018, the UNHCR released a report highly critical of Australia’s treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in offshore processing. After years of systemic violence, the government has chosen to walk away in the midst of a pandemic, and leave these people with nothing.

Since March 2020, the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) has been moving to grant six-month Final Departure Bridging Visas to approximately 576 people. This has had the effect suddenly of shattering the supports on which they had been relying. After years of being forced to stay in housing determined by DHA, they were told that they had three weeks to find their own housing and move out.

After years of being forced to live on a meagre payment from the government and threatened with extreme punishment if they tried to work to support themselves, they were suddenly told they must find a job.

Vietenamese boats arriving in Darwin 1977. Manhhai. flickr cc.

How can they accomplish this without work experience in Australia, some with significant health issues, and all in the middle of a pandemic and recession? People seeking asylum do not have access to JobMaker or JobTrainer schemes, or to any other Covid-19 related welfare or stimulus measure introduced by the Federal Government.

Services such as Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), House of Welcome, and Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney are already stepping up to try to advocate for these individuals and to provide support. The extended Covid-19 restrictions imposed in Melbourne have delayed the impact on people who reside there, but their support will be removed, and groups like the Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project and Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) will be called upon to assist.

But charitable organisations cannot take the place of a government-funded safety net, especially in times of crisis. While Australians may have to call on Centrelink programs like JobSeeker and JobMaker for the first time in their lives, people seeking asylum do not have that privilege.

This group of people, including folks known to JRS who are profoundly unwell, has been told they should find employment and private rental accommodation in the space of 3-6 weeks. This would be challenging for a well-connected Australian to manage in ‘normal’ times, but it is unrealistic to imagine it is possible at this time, especially for those who have been excluded from the job market since they arrived in Australia. It is just not possible.

Support groups greatly stretched

The groups which offer help to people seeking asylum will step up once again. They will do it graciously and with gratitude for the support of the community. But they are also under extreme stress.

Between March and October this year, JRS experienced a 254% increase in demand for its service. This staggering increase was not related to the recent cuts to support, but linked to widespread job losses. Those experiencing the most severe impacts are people in precarious and insecure work, unfortunately, very common for people on temporary visas, including those seeking asylum.

With so many in our communities suffering right now, it can be hard to attend to particular hardships and struggles, but the cuts to support for people who were medically evacuated from PNG and Nauru cannot be ignored. This particular group of people has suffered under systems put in place by successive governments.

With no certainty for the future, and facing such hardship in their current circumstances, these children, men, and women walk alongside us. They are part of our community, and should be welcomed and valued, acknowledged in their humanity, and equal in dignity.

For information

Good Samaritan Sister Sarah Puls is a social worker who has worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Western Sydney, and is a member of ACRATH (Australian Catholic Religious Against Trafficking in Humans). She is currently studying at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne.

This article was first published in the November 2020 edition of The Good Oil, the e-journal of the Good Samaritan Sisters.

Photo Refugees in Kara Tepe Camp Lesbos 2016. UN photo/ Rick Bajornas. flickr cc.

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