First published on New Matilda
Unemployment is the lowest it’s been since the mid-70s, but there are people living in our community with no right to work. Michael Green investigates the realities of life for asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E
Paul (not his real name) wants to work. ‘Any sort of work.’ Although he is skilled, he doesn’t mind what he does. ‘Even the cleaning,’ he says. But Paul is an asylum seeker on Bridging Visa E and the Federal Government doesn’t allow him to work, not even voluntarily.
‘I like to work, but nowadays someone said I can’t work. I’m at home, thinking too much on my problems, on my family and everything,’ he says.
Paul is also refused access to Medicare, or any other Government support services. ‘Surviving is a little bit hard,’ he says stoically. Paul is legally residing in the community, but Government policy has rendered him destitute; he must rely on private charity for the bare essentials of life.
The Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) doesn’t release the figures, but charities estimate that there are between 2000-4000 people across the country in the same situation, often for years.
‘The consequences for those people are extreme,’ says Tamara Domicelj, Director of the Asylum Seekers Centre (ASC) in Sydney. ‘We are talking about people that are lawfully residing in the community while they wait for a final decision. If you’re not allowed to work and you can’t access mainstream welfare entitlements, it literally is enforced destitution.’
It’s Refugee Week and community groups around the country have held barbeques, concerts, fairs and forums. From Sale to Darwin to Fremantle, there have been over 100 different events reflecting public goodwill and support for the refugees who are a part of our community.
But for those few thousand asylum seekers like Paul, community support can only go so far to make up for a Government policy that takes away their ability to fend for themselves.
Asylum seekers arrive in Australia in one of two ways by boat or by air. Despite the media attention boat arrivals receive, those who come by plane constitute the majority. Most arrive on another type of visa, such as a student or tourist visa, and lodge their application for a protection visa once here. They are then put on a bridging visa, which allows them to stay legally in Australia while they wait for a decision in their case.
Usually, asylum seekers are granted Bridging Visa A, which permits them to work and access Medicare. Many are eligible for welfare through the Government-funded Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme administered by the Red Cross. But under three kinds of circumstances, asylum seekers are granted Bridging Visa E with conditions that deny them right to work or receive Medicare and welfare.
First, there are those who lodge their claim for a Protection Visa more than 45 days after their arrival. Secondly, are asylum seekers in detention who are released into the community due to health problems or other special circumstances, before their case is finalised. And finally, there are asylum seekers who have had their application denied by both DIAC and the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT), and are seeking either judicial review or Ministerial intervention.
These conditions are designed to act as a deterrent for lodging protection claims and subsequent appeals. According to DIAC, ‘The 45-day rule was introduced in 1997 as part of a package of measures aimed at minimising incentives for misuse of Australia’s onshore protection process by applicants in the community.’ The Department asserted that some people with no claims to refugee status had been submitting frivolous Protection Visa applications to obtain work rights and delay their departure from Australia.
Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) in Melbourne, argues that there has been no evidence of widespread abuse of the system. ‘I would like to see some figures showing that a large number of people were seeking asylum illegitimately,’ she says. ‘None of the community-based agencies who offer legal support, are going to help people who patently have no claim. We don’t have the resources.’
That punishment has serious human consequences, according to the ASC’s Domicelj: ‘Over the years we have seen a lot of severe depression, malnutrition, homelessness. We see situations of quite serious physical and psychological conditions that are going untreated. We have never had a huge influx of onshore asylum seekers . It makes no sense to have a set up where people are permitted to live in Australia but are denied the means to self-support. Over the last 18 months, DIAC has taken a number of positive steps but the fact remains there are still people out there who are completely reliant on charity.’
But the pursuit of asylum seeker rights by these advocacy groups has been criticised for undermining the Government’s ability to process claims efficiently. In Monash University’s People and Place journal last year, Adrienne Millbank argued that, ‘If asylum seekers are provided with a full set of social benefits, it will be difficult to persuade them to leave should their applications fail.’
Amy Camilleri, casework co-ordinator at Hotham Mission, which runs the Asylum Seeker Project in Melbourne, disagrees. She says they have found a substantial level of voluntary repatriation amongst the asylum seekers they assist through their casework program. ‘That means people don’t have to be forcibly removed by the Department.’ For the advocacy groups, the objective is not that all asylum claims be granted, but that people are permitted to support themselves while the decisions are being made.
Granting work rights may not just help these people to survive, but also add to the economy. During its time in office, the Coalition has consistently encouraged people to get into the labour force. The latest unemployment rate showed a 32-year low of 4.2 per cent, and Prime Minister John Howard commented, as he has before, that ‘the greatest human dividend out of good economic management is jobs.’ During his weekly radio message in early April, Howard stated, ‘The human value of having a job, the sense of self-worth and esteem it brings is incalculable.’
Melbourne University PhD candidate Gwilym Croucher undertook research on behalf of the Network of Asylum Seeker Agencies Victoria and the ASC in Sydney on the economic impact of allowing asylum seekers to work.
His paper, to be published this month in the Victorian Council of Social Services journal, Just Policy, finds that even taking into account costs of English classes, re-skilling and a higher than average unemployment rate, granting work rights to asylum seekers could add millions of dollars to the Australian economy.
Politically, there appears to be some pressure for change. In March 2006, the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee recommended that Bridging Visa E holders be granted work rights. In relation to the current rules, it stated, ‘A policy which renders a person destitute is morally indefensible and an abrogation of responsibility by the Commonwealth.’ The Government Senators on the Committee produced a dissenting report.
At the same time, DIAC was conducting a comprehensive review of the whole bridging visa regime, consulting a wide range of stakeholders and presenting the findings and recommendations to the then Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone. Many months on, the Government is yet to release the report or a response.
A spokesperson for the new Minister, Kevin Andrews, says ‘We are considering the report and as such it would be inappropriate to make comments on the visa at this time.’
Labor is promising reform. At its National Conference earlier this year, it moved to abolish the 45-day rule and may go further to ensure work rights for all asylum seekers.
While reports are considered and discussions continue, Paul is languishing with nothing to do. But during the last two weeks he has taken a risk that could jeopardise his bridging visa. The ASRC has moved offices and Paul has spent his days volunteering to help them relocate painting the walls, steam cleaning the carpets and even demolishing a partition.
‘If they ask me to volunteer work everyday for somewhere, I like to go and do, it’s a good feeling for me. I’m not thinking about the money or anything, just I want to go on the life, I mean just not sitting at home, just go and do something. It should be benefit for someone, for me also, a good relief for my mind if I do something better for the public’.