Asylum cuts alarm agencies

An Ethiopian asylum seeker carries an infant in the Dambala Fuchana refugee camp near the Ethiopian-Kenyan border town of Moyale, Kenya, March 27, 2018. PHOTO: CNS/Baz Ratner, Reuters

Thousands of asylum seekers living and raising families in our suburbs are weeks away from disaster.

That’s the warning from Catholic education, welfare, and advocacy organisations calling for an urgent reversal of the Federal Governments’ decision to cut income support for some asylum seekers from April 1. The change is the latest since last August in a series of rolling changes to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program which have tightened eligibility requirements.

Many are currently having their eligibility for payments reassessed, or will in the next several weeks with sources telling The Catholic Weekly that a large number of Sydney residents will be affected. The program provides a basic living allowance, casework support, assistance in finding housing, and access to torture and trauma counselling for people waiting for a decision about their claim for refugee status.

Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Carolina Gottardo, said that after years of being prevented from working due to their visa status, some people with severe physical or mental illnesses, including parents, could be given as little as seven to 10 days to find jobs to support themselves.

Children from Sydney’s Melkite community, whose families successfully sought refuge here. PHOTO: Patrick J Lee

“The government’s cuts to income support and the short time frame in which they will be introduced will push innocent people into hunger, homelessness, and unsafe situations,” she told The Catholic Weekly. “Nothing about this reflects ‘the fair go.’ Every Australian should be questioning this.”

It’s not clear how many asylum seekers will be affected by the changes by the Department of Home Affairs, but according to the St Vincent de Paul Society there are more than 15,000 people living in the community on a bridging visa while their claim for refugee protection is processed. Many are likely to be recipients of SRSS payments. The living allowance is 89 percent of the Newstart allowance, which equates to $247 per week. There is also some rent assistance and for families, 89 percent of family tax benefits.

The change is likely to apply to students over 18 and may extend to parents with school-aged children who are deemed ‘job-ready’, people who send more than $1000 to family or friends overseas in a year, and others. Ms Gottardo explained that even on the existing income support some people are already forced to choose between meals, medicines, and rent. The St Vincent de Paul Society has also seen an increase in the number of people seeking asylum who need financial support to survive.

“We are seeing people living on the streets, young people forced out of education, and people going hungry, all because of mean-spirited government policy,” said national council CEO Dr John Falzon. “When you cut essential payments you’re cutting down the safety net and when you cut down the safety net disaster will follow. These cuts are hurting ordinary people in our community. This systematic degradation of some of us is a degradation of us all.”

Dr Dan White, executive director of Sydney Catholic Schools (SCS), said the potential reduction in Government support to vulnerable families “is of great concern.” He said he remains committed to supporting refugees and asylum seeker families who choose to have their children educated in one of the 152 school communities. This year he said, Sydney Catholic Schools will be educating more 800 refugee children “who have experienced incredible pain and difficulties in their young lives. To assist refugee families, Catholic Education Foundation provides full fee paying bursaries to ensure these children receive the education they deserve,” he said.

The Department of Home Affairs was contacted for a comment but had not responded as The Catholic Weekly went to press.

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