COVID-19: Many refugees face destitution and disease

A rally for permanent protection for refugees, in Parramatta in December. Photo: Zebedee Parkes

Other than those held in detention, refugees and those seeking asylum who are living in communities across Australia are probably the most vulnerable to COVID-19.

SBS News reported how Arian Rezaei and his two brothers, who are refugees from Iran, have spent half a decade establishing a café in Adelaide, but had to close it.

“It was heartbreaking, seeing the business not working anymore … we have lost our jobs. It makes it very hard for us to go through it at this time,” Rezaei told SBS.

This group of up to 30,000 people, held in a settlement limbo under bridging visas, Temporary Protection Visas (TPV) or Safe Haven Enterprise Visas (SHEV), have reduced or no working rights and little to no access to welfare payments, Medicare and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions, ethnic community organisations and others have highlighted the situation of other TPV holders who could lose their jobs but are not entitled to any of the support packages for workers announced so far.

The federal government made some moves to address this problem on April 3.

But some refugees who are not permanent residents have already lost their jobs and still have no access to welfare payments.

They face destitution and, without secure housing, they will not be able to adequately self-isolate and are therefore highly vulnerable to the new coronavirus.

People who hold SHEVs and lose their work can try to get the special benefit payment. But this creates a new anxiety, because SHEV holders can only apply for a limited range of permanent visas if they can provide evidence they worked or studied in a designated “regional” area for three-and-a-half years without accessing Centrelink payments.

They worry that accessing welfare might mean that opportunity is lost. Alternatively, if they do not access it, they will have no income at all.

Other refugees do not have access to Medicare either because of delays or authorities’ refusal to renew their bridging visas.

People have been applying for bridging visa renewals, only to face either months-long delays, or refusals without clear reasons. Now, community legal centres and other support can only be provided remotely or has ceased altogether.

The irregularity of these refugees’ visa status means they are left with no recognised rights or entitlements. Furthermore, they could become fearful of interactions with authorities, including getting tested for COVID-19 because of the risk of arrest or detention for immigration law breaches.

Many refugees lack access to the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, meaning vital medications are often out of reach. Refugees with expensive, and thus restricted, access to health care and medicines will probably end up with their general health being compromised. This will increase their need to be admitted to hospital.

The whole health system needs to be turned to focus on COVID-19. From the outset, progressive political forces have argued no one should be excluded from this.

Since the government has obviously failed to recognise what needs to be done, refugee advocacy and support groups are beginning to mobilise to publicly call for access to Medicare and financial support for people seeking asylum.

[Jonathan Strauss is the secretary of Rural Australians for Refugees.]

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