A social crisis is developing throughout suburban Australia. Asylum seekers on short-term bridging visas are being dumped in the community without the right to work, study or receive adequate welfare.
Already traumatised by the situations they are fleeing, dangerous journeys and immigration detention, those on bridging visas face housing stress, food insecurity, alienation and boredom and a return to detention when their bridging visas expire. Processing of asylum claims is on hold and the threat of deportation is constant.
A report in March by the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre estimated that 10,000 refugees will be released on visas without the right to work this year. Charities report they are having difficulty responding to the needs of the asylum seekers while maintaining services to existing clients.
Yet this crisis is not the result of any economic scarcity. Most refugees have a broad range of skills and most could be integrated into the workforce and contribute to society. A social crisis is being deliberately manufactured as part of the bipartisan policy of deterring refugees from entering Australia.
The federal Labor government’s “no advantage” policy applies to all asylum seekers who have arrived since August 13 last year. It includes indefinitely prolonging both the processing of asylum claims and the issuing of visas once claims have been processed (more than 90% of asylum seekers arriving by boat are found to be refugees).
This has meant that the immigration jails and prison camps in Australia and “offshore” in Nauru and Papua New Guinea have run out of space. Some refugees have to be released, albeit temporarily, so the government makes rules to ensure they remain disadvantaged and restricted.
As well as not being allowed to work or study, they are restricted in where they can live. They also have to pay rent, energy bills, food and transport costs out of an income of between 80% and 90% of the Newstart Allowance normally paid to unemployed people.
Most have been dumped in the outer suburbs of state capitals, but increasingly they are turning up in regional cities. Geelong Trades Hall secretary Tim Gooden told Green Left Weekly that there were “150-odd people on bridging visas without the right to work already in Geelong”.
He said they were mostly single men, but he knew of eight Tamil families. Gooden, who is also an activist in the Combined Refugee Action Group (CRAG) and the Socialist Alliance, said he learnt the scope of the problem when he arranged a room at trades hall for a meeting of the Australian Tamil Association. At the meeting there were “young men keen to work but not allowed to and with little money”.
The young men were experiencing extreme housing stress: living in houses on the edge of town on short-term leases from reluctant landlords with two or three people sleeping in each room. In one instance bureaucratic bungling meant that a household had their meagre welfare cheque delayed and Gooden had to arrange for activists to provide them with groceries.
Gooden said it was not the role of CRAG or the trade union movement to provide charity so people could have the bare necessities of life. “The right to work is a human right,” he said. “CRAG wants to change government policy.”
GLW spoke to Tamil asylum seekers, who requested that their stories not be told in detail because they feared that identification would lead to retribution against them by Australian authorities and against their families by Sri Lankan authorities. All gave horrific first-hand accounts of anti-Tamil violence being perpetrated by the Sri Lankan regime, which conquered the Tamil areas from separatist forces in 2009.
Most had sailed to Australia directly from Sri Lanka without transiting any third country. The logic of the government’s insistence that they obtain no advantage in having come to Australia is that they should obtain no advantage from having left a situation of violent military occupation and ethnic cleansing.
The difficulties they are experiencing with finding housing and money are overshadowed by the uncertainty of what will happen when their six-month bridging visas expire. Combined with this uncertainty is the thing they complained about most: boredom. They are keen to do voluntary work, but even this is forbidden under a policy designed to prevent their integration into the Australian community.
Gooden said the policy was “a recipe for disaster”. He said that tabloid media claims of refugees having a propensity for criminality are contradicted by crime statistics, but if enough traumatised people spend enough time facing homelessness, poverty, isolation, uncertainty and boredom, social problems are inevitable.
He said a backlash could be caused by this and by disadvantaged people from Geelong having to compete with bridging visa holders for the resources of underfunded welfare agencies, and speculated that creating this backlash may be the point of government policy.
CRAG is planning activities to counter the alienation the refugees are experiencing and help build links between them and the community. These include a welcome dinner, sporting events and a project to make recycled bicycles, giving the refugees a chance to do unpaid work and ease their transport issues.