Asylum seekers living on the precipice

Around 12,000 people seeking asylum and living lawfully across Australia could be left hungry, homeless, and vulnerable to exploitation because of the government’s decision to cut people off from SRSS starting early June 2018.

Shanthi*, her husband Priyan* and their toddler Raj* are facing the unthinkable, not far from Parramatta in Western Sydney.

Shanthi and Priyan sought asylum in Australia in 2012, after the Sri Lankan army sent Priyan’s elder brother and uncle to internment camps in Northern Sri Lanka.

Their first few months were spent in Australian detention centres, and when they were released, they were not allowed to work or study under the previous government’s No Advantage policy.

When the current government reintroduced the possibility of work rights for people seeking asylum in 2015, Shanthi and Priyan were hopeful. Employment meant utilising their skills, contributing by paying taxes, and gaining a degree of freedom and independence while their protection claims were processed.

It also meant they would no longer have to contact their Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) case manager every three months, or rely on meagre income support payments (worth approximately 89 per cent of the lowest Newstart payment) to pay their rent, and buy food and essentials.

But things did not improve. Priyan developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe depression, which brought nightmares, periods of dissociation, memory loss, and very little sleep. Raj had also just been born, and SRSS was a vital support.

Fast forward to March 2018, and under new changes to SRSS, the family has lost all income support, leaving them on the cusp of eviction. Shanthi is heavily pregnant and Priyan continues to be on heavy medication.

Raj is two years old, and will soon require childcare if his parents are working regularly. This requirement poses another dilemma because people seeking asylum are not eligible for any childcare concessions or subsidies.

In the meantime, the family has had to sell the few valuables they own to thus far avoid being thrown out onto the street.

Shanthi, Priyan, and Raj are not alone in their predicament. Around 12,000 people seeking asylum and living lawfully across Australia could be left hungry, homeless, and vulnerable to exploitation because of the government’s decision to cut people off from SRSS starting early June 2018.

They will have seven to ten days to find work in a market that is difficult enough for many Australians to break into.

Forcing full-time students, single mothers with small children, people with debilitating mental illnesses, physical injuries, chronic illness, limited English and precarious legal statuses into the workforce with such a small turnaround is unrealistic and cruel. Even more so because successive Australian governments have denied them the rights to do so for three or more years.

‘Finding work is hard at the best of times. By restricting eligibility for case management services and income support, and driving highly vulnerable women and men into the workforce at short notice, we are creating situations of systemic poverty, destitution, and homelessness’, Carolina Gottardo, Director of JRS Australia says.

JRS Australia can offer people seeking asylum like Priyan, Shanthi, and Raj a temporary basic emergency living allowance, access to our food bank, specialist casework, community activities, access to our employment program and a safe, welcoming space.

But permanent stability is a pipe dream under current circumstances.

‘We are really struggling to meet the growing demand for safe, affordable, and sustainable housing, but also for basic necessities such as food, toiletries, sanitary pads and nappies. Other non-government funded charities are deeply affected too’ Gottardo says.

‘SRSS cuts will not only have an effect on organisations working with people seeking asylum. For the first time, it is likely that mainstream services including homeless shelters, local councils, the police, and mental health crisis response teams will also feel it.’

According to JRS Australia’s Director, ‘this is a social crisis born of deliberately irresponsible government policy in a wealthy country. It’s also goes completely against our Australian “fair go” values.’

Priyan and Shanthi never thought they would be living in circumstances of such acute precariousness in Australia.

Incredibly, going home and facing the dangerous uncertainties of Northern Sri Lanka has now crossed their minds. Maybe this is the Australian government’s intention after all.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Read more about the SRSS cuts and JRS’s response at the JRS website.