We are gravely concerned about these ‘non-engagement’ letters that impose arbitrary deadlines and harsh sanctions. These letters are causing immense distress to people who are already in an extremely vulnerable position. Threatening people with destitution, and with the prospect of being barred from protection, creates very real risks to people who have already suffered enough.

Those affected by this process have waited years for the opportunity to apply for refugee protection. Prolonged uncertainty, enforced poverty, and the ever-present threat of deportation has brought many to the edge of despair. Professor Nicholas Proctor recently described the increase in suicides and suicide attempts among this cohort, and characterised their predicament as one of ‘lethal hopelessness’, with many ‘being at advanced stages of feeling mentally trapped, figuratively boxed in, especially hopeless and helpless’. For these asylum seekers, there is a real risk that these threatening letters may be a tipping point, pushing them over the edge.

Cutting off benefits is cruel, inhumane and will only lead to further stress, mental deterioration and potentially suicide. Current benefits are not enough to live on, and to withdraw these meagre payments would place asylum seekers in an impossible situation. Many of those supported by our services already struggle to cope on a day-to-day basis, with limited income and few employment prospects given they only possess a short-term bridging visa.

To support asylum seekers through the complex and convoluted application process, it is crucial the Government reinstate funding for legal assistance and interpreting services. In our experience, asylum seekers are keen to have their application for protection processed so that they can start the next phase of their life in Australia. Many who are yet to lodge their application have in fact ‘engaged’ with legal centres. However, as a result of Government policy, these legal centres are severely overstretched, with waiting lists in the thousands.

The Government’s punitive approach is further undermining the integrity of the refugee determination process, increasing the risk that claims will not be properly assessed and that people will be returned to persecution and harm. Without legal advice, asylum seekers may not have the opportunity to prepare an application that properly details their claims for protection. The use of sanctions and arbitrary deadlines heightens the likelihood that applications will be poorly prepared and omit relevant information, thereby increasing the risk of a negative decision for those with legitimate claims for asylum.

Given that any appeal of a decision by an officer of the Department is limited to written material only, the chances of success on appeal are significantly reduced if the original application is not carefully prepared and includes all relevant evidence and documentation.

We call on the Government to immediately restore funding to legal assistance services, and to ensure those yet to make an application are given appropriate time and support to do so. They should not be threatened with re-detention and loss of benefits during this time.