Address to the UNHCR NGO consultations by the Director of JRS Australia, Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ

Fr. Aloysious Mowe SJ, Director, JRS Australia.

Fr. Aloysious Mowe SJ, Director, JRS Australia.

“We are finding that the cohort that is now in greatest need tends to be boat arrivals who are living in the community on Bridging Visas, and who have a limited amount of financial assistance.”

Apart from our Community Detention program, there is only one cohort of asylum seekers in Sydney with whom JRS normally works directly: people who arrive by air, and have lodged protection claims. We limit our financial and accommodation services to those who are destitute, in other words, those with no access to any income whatsoever, including CAS and ASAS.

Some of our clients are with us because it can take up to 12 weeks from the initial approach by the client for an ASAS application to be approved. We have clients with work rights, but are unable to find work in NSW for a range of reasons: lack of language skills; non-transferable work skills; mental health issues. The inaugural Red Cross Vulnerability Report on asylum seekers (June 2013) noted that only 15% of asylum seekers with work rights who were surveyed had employment.

When our clients are able to get access to ASAS, or find employment, their attempts to find housing are replete with difficulties. The Refugee Council’s very valuable recent literature review of housing issues for asylum seekers and refugees (September 2013) highlights the many obstacles: the shortage of low-cost housing; difficulties in navigating the private rental market; discrimination in the housing market; lack of social and community capital; and limited income. If you are not a maritime arrival, it is a struggle just finding the initial sum of money to pay for a housing bond.

By and large, however, in relation to this cohort of clients, it is “business as usual”. The numbers of air arrivals who become destitute is not overwhelming; many who come by air seem, by definition, to have community links and other resources on which they can depend for assistance and support.

Why then is JRS in the process of re-evaluating our criteria for support, and the raison d’être of our accommodation and financial assistance programs? Two of the criteria we use in JRS for setting priorities are the greatest need – which asylum seekers in the community are the most vulnerable – and what is the greatest amount of good that we can achieve?

We are finding that the cohort that is now in greatest need tends to be boat arrivals who are living in the community on Bridging Visas, and who have a limited amount of financial assistance. We are also concerned that the community will soon see the emergence of recognised refugees on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) who have work rights but are in low-paying jobs, if they can find employment; or who will be on limited financial assistance through the government’s proposed work for the dole scheme.

What we are faced with are the consequences of the policies put into place near the end of 2011.

More than 20,000 asylum seekers now live in the community with Bridging Visas on assistance allowances that are less than any Centrelink benefit category. Those who arrived by boat after 13th August 2012 have no work rights. Our sister agencies in Sydney who work with this cohort of asylum seekers report a high level of need and vulnerability: long waiting lists for initial assessments for assistance; homelessness or the threat thereof; the most rudimentary form of casework from their ASAS service provider, perhaps with a conversation once in two months; with desperate calls for assistance and advice going to voicemail and unreturned.

The former Minister for Immigration, Brendan O’Connor, characterised the level of financial support given by the government to asylum seekers as “not generous”, but “adequate”; a deliberate policy of deterrence for boat arrivals at the time. It is difficult to agree with him. We know of many cases where, of the $210 allowance that an asylum seeker gets in a week, $180 goes to rent a crowded shared room in a boarding house, leaving $30 a week for food, travel, and other costs.  A Big Mac costs $4.80, without fries. Once again, in the pursuit of a policy of deterring others from coming, those already here are being punished. Whatever the politics or pragmatics of push and pull factors, the very real people being victimised are forgotten.

We have heard that the Department of Immigration is saying that it has heard nothing of significance in terms of Bridging Visa holders on ASAS facing significant hardship. I do not know what to make of this.

It is possible that asylum seekers are not aware of the existence of agencies who might assist them.

Agencies may not be going to the proper channels to advocate on behalf of clients.

The sector may be so focused on finding ways to support clients that we are not, in a coordinated and strategic way, going to the authorities to apprise them of the real conditions on the ground.

We are not collating data.

There are other possible hypotheses.

What are the possible areas of tensile weakness in the system, and therefore of leverage for the sector, and hope for the asylum seekers?

What do we know?

We know that the government intends to introduce TPVs. In effect, this would mean that 30,000 asylum seekers currently on Bridging Visas or in Community or Held Detention are to have their protection claims processed, and their negative outcomes taken through appeal. One possible implication of the removal of IAAAS is that there will be additional burdens placed on the Departmental decision makers. Those successful in their protection claims will have their TPVs come up for review at the end of an initial three-year period, most probably while some of the 30,000 are still having their primary decisions processed. At the end of a further 2-year period, those on TPVs may be considered for permanent resettlement, yet another process to be endured and, crucially, to be paid for by the tax-payer.

This will be a very drawn-out series of processes. Running asylum seekers through these processes will be costly.

It is also altogether possible that some form of the UK’s Detained Fast Track Process, where asylum claims are dealt with in 21 days, could be introduced for asylum seekers currently in the community; this is not to be confused with the 48-hour turnaround period that the minister is aiming for when it comes to asylum seekers who are destined, upon disembarking on Christmas Island, to be sent to an offshore processing centre. This latter process makes no decisions about protection claims, but is simply a fitness-to-travel assessment, just the way one might examine a bunch of bananas from Queensland to determine that it is on this side of un-ripeness to be safely sent to New York for sale in a Korean grocery store.

As far as we can ascertain, the department has had no more details from the Minister’s office regarding this possible policy setting. I suspect that the mass re-detention of asylum seekers currently in the community would have to occur for the DFT Process to be effective. This would be a disaster for asylum seekers. Those of you who have worked in this area for a long time know that people make better decisions all around when they are free and in the community: better decisions even about returning. Re-detentions would be a disaster for Australia’s already tarnished international reputation regarding our treatment of asylum seekers. And the cost of this, as you can well imagine, would be prohibitive.

Costing, I suspect, will count for everything. Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing, and governments are cynical if nothing else.

We are looking at a very large number of people who will in all likelihood be living in the community for an extended period of time, who will find it hard to look for work, if they have work rights, or who will be living on a very limited income. They will live that entire time with no certainty at all about their immigration outcomes; they will be separated from their loved ones; and they will continue to be tagged as illegal arrivals who are being justly punished for their effrontery in jumping an imaginary queue dreamt up in the leafy suburbs of Canberra. I am not a fan of doomsday scenarios, but even on the most optimistic of reckonings, we have a problem.

Let me tell you about “Sevdin”, a Kurd from Turkey who lived in one of the JRS shelters in Sydney. When he lived with us, he seemed constantly on the edge of anger: brittle, defensive, aggressive. He was unable to work, anxious not only because of the very long processes that he had to go through in his protection claims, but also because he was separated from his family; because he had to live in a poorly-resourced shelter; because he was a young man but totally dependent on the charity of others; because he was led to believe that as a young activist Kurd his security clearance for permanent protection would be a nightmare even if he was found to be a refugee. He eventually was granted refugee status, and after a long process was granted a visa. He came back to the JRS office last week and joined the staff for our weekly lunch together: married, finishing his training, employed – but most important, Sevdin was relaxed, congenial company, happy. I fear that we will have fewer and fewer examples of this kind of happy ending.

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