COVID-19 and People Seeking Asylum: Reflections from the front line by Martina Thiermann

My name is Martina and I am a caseworker at Arrupe Place, JRS Australia’s community center in Westmead. I am part of a team of specialist caseworkers who work on the front line with people seeking asylum, refugees and other vulnerable temporary migrants living in the community in Sydney.

Our role comprises assessing people’s needs when they approach JRS, and linking them in with supports both through JRS and other partner agencies. We provide people with emotional and psychosocial support, accompaniment, information and referrals, access to JRS food bank and community programs, and emergency relief. 

We are lucky to have the opportunity to work with and serve a resilient, talented, creative and diverse group of people. Arrupe Place is usually bursting with individuals and families keen to access our community programs, join into community lunches or weekly gardening, access our food bank, or wanting to see a caseworker for support in times of both triumph and crisis. 

We are always run off our feet trying our best to see everyone that comes through the door. Often we find ourselves unable to meet the demand and having to make appointments for a later date because the need for support is far greater than our capacity to respond. 

Since COVID-19, this has changed for the worse. 

In a space that is already full of uncertainty and unfairness for the people we serve, there has been an unprecedented rise in the number of people in crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of people contacting us who are sleeping rough or living in overcrowded dwellings, being threatened with eviction from their properties, unable to access healthcare and essential services, and talking about suicide, has risen significantly. 

We usually flag these cases in our intake system as an urgent priority to respond to. But there have been so many in the past weeks that we are struggling to keep up. Although our work has always been challenging, both resources wise and emotionally, the past few weeks have been much harder than before. 

We have recently adapted our ways of working, and are now supporting clients mostly over the phone and through emails. This has had it’s own challenges. 

As social workers we rely so much on the unsaid – the body language, facial expressions and overall presentation of the people we work with – to check in on how they are going. Doing most of our work over the phone now makes it much more difficult to pick up on these non-verbal cues, and to respond based on what we are hearing.

There is also a general sense of helplessness and anxiety among those we are in contact with. Where a family was previously receiving some income from work and getting by with limited supports from JRS, we are now seeing families desperate for support and with nowhere else to turn to.

We are also seeing many individuals and families in abject poverty and, in some cases, destitution. Some have been independent and contributing to Australian society for several months or years, but are now unemployed in the COVID-19 economic slowdown. 

Unlike their Australian co-workers, they are unable to access any form of safety net. 

People ask us about their eligibility for Jobkeeper and Jobseeker payments, which they hear about on the news, and become distressed upon knowing that they are unable to access these support packages. They hope that JRS may be able to provide the same or similar supports, which is of course impossible. 

This has been absolutely heartbreaking because people we have seen at their strongest now have no other option but to rely on charities like us for assistance again. Some are understandably embarrassed to approach organisations like ours for support after being independent and thriving for so long. 

We pride ourselves at JRS on working with temporary migrants in vulnerable situations, regardless of their visa status, and providing not only crisis support but also a safe place and a quiet, listening ear. All of this has become increasingly difficult, as increased demand means less time and more difficult decisions about who is in more urgent need. The casework team struggles to decide which families or individuals should be allocated the limited emergency relief, examining which people have another organization, a friend or community member supporting them, or a few extra dollars or nights of accommodation that could see them wait a little longer for much needed support. 

The fact remains that with little to no government funding for people seeking asylum and a saturated non-government sector, of the use of casework meetings to allocate scarce resources will continue to be a sobering and saddening experience. 

Most days I experience feeling like superwoman and also incredibly helpless at the same time. Seeing and experiencing first-hand the way that the people we serve are treated by the Australian government incites such strong feelings of injustice. This is not something new for us – we work with a group of people who have been treated unfairly and unjustly by our government for a long time, but the gap between those deemed by our government as ‘deserving’ of support and those who have been left behind continues to widen. As ever, the basic needs and rights of innocent people continue to be forgotten.  

The silver lining in all of this is that individuals and members of the Australian community have been generous with during this time of need: everyday people stepping in to fill the void in leadership and support. 

To all those people please know that we and the women, children, and men we serve are incredibly grateful for your generosity and care.

Your support is noticed and appreciated, and it is what keeps us smiling and motivated to continue our work. In this time of uncertainty, please feel certain that we will continue our fight to support our society’s most in need so that there is #NobodyLeftBehind

 

~ Martina Thiermann,

JRS Australia Caseworker

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