It is a fundamental belief of St Vincent de Paul Society members that all people are entitled to dignity and all are companions in our journey through life. Extreme poverty and destitution is an insult to a person’s dignity. It is for this reason that the Society views with increasing concern the destitution forced on many people seeking asylum in our country.

Who are the people who are seeking asylum and vulnerable to destitution?

There are more than 15,000 people who are living in the Australian community on a bridging visa while their claim for refugee protection is processed. Most of these people had to wait at least three years before they were able to lodge their application for protection. 

Why are these people who are seeking asylum becoming destitute?

Over the past year St Vincent de Paul Society has seen a significant increase in the number of people seeking asylum who need financial support to survive while awaiting resolution of their refugee status.

For instance, in NSW, the Asylum Seeker Program has assisted with the living costs for 12 individuals and one family seeking asylum. Increasingly punitive changes in Australian Government policy have meant that more people seeking asylum are at risk of homelessness. More than a third of the people supported by the Asylum Seeker Program had been sleeping rough at the time of referral, while the remainder were at risk of eviction and homelessness. The increase in homelessness and financial hardship has meant that Vinnies have started to play a larger role rather than only being called on to assist people from time to time in emergencies or because of unexpected costs.

A similar pattern is seen at the Vinnies Migrant and Refugee Centre in South Australia, as well as by Society members throughout the country as they respond to calls for assistance.

One of the major reasons that more and more people seeking asylum are becoming destitute is because the Australian Government has changed the way it administers the Status Resolution Support Service.

What is the Status Resolution Support Service Payment?

The Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) Payment is a payment made to people who need financial support to survive in Australia while their claims for protection are being assessed. The payment is typically 89 percent of the Newstart Allowance ($243 a week for a single person without children). The SRRS program also provides casework support and access to torture and trauma counselling.

While the SRSS payment is made through the Department of Human Services, it is the Department of Home Affairs which funds and decides who is eligible. Their rules of eligibility are unclear. The Department of Human Services website only states that:

“The Department of Home Affairs will decide if you can get this payment.”

Unlike payments in our social security system where there are clear and transparent eligibility criteria, SRSS criteria seem to be at the discretion of the Minister. Consequently, it is difficult for those who receive the payment and those who give them assistance to understand what is happening when changes are made.

How have the rules for receiving the SRSS Payment changed?

Recent changes include:

People who are studying, including English courses, may no longer be eligible. This has resulted in some bright young people having to drop out of their studies while they await assessment of their claims for protection.

People who send money to family or friends overseas, or even within Australia, can now lose their SRSS payments. After advocacy from the community sector, this new rule was modified and so that a person becomes ineligible for SRSS payments only if they send or receive more than $1,000 in a 12-month period (cumulatively) to family or friends.

People who received a tourist, student or work visa before applying for refugee protection are not eligible for SRSS payments until their initial visa expires, irrespective of their financial situation.

It is also expected that the Department of Home Affairs will soon begin reassessing the eligibility of everyone who currently receives SRSS. They will lose access to the SRSS payment if they are deemed “job-ready” and satisfy some other minimum requirements (such as having a Medicare card and the right to work, and if they have any children enrolled in school). This means they will be left without any income support at all. 

What other barriers are preventing asylum seekers from accessing SRSS payments?

A long-standing problem is that SRSS payments have not been paid to people who are awaiting a final decision on their refugee applications from the Courts after having their applications for refugee protection rejected by the Department of Home Affairs and the Immigration Assessment Authority. People who have recently put in an application to the Courts will need to wait years before their case is heard (some have even been given court dates in 2021). In the interim they receive no casework or financial support from the Australian Government.

A further complication arises because the issuing of bridging visas has been inconsistent. A bridging visa is a temporary arrangement that allows someone to stay before they receive a substantive visa such as a work, student, family or refugee visa.

There are no clear details on this policy from the Department of Home Affairs. Some people are issued bridging visas without income support, access to Medicare, work rights or study rights.

What has been the effect on people seeking asylum? (some case studies)

Denying asylum seekers basic income support has pushed an already vulnerable group into deeper hardship. The case studies that follow give an insight into how the changes to SRSS have affected the lives of vulnerable people living in Australia (note some details have been changed to protect identities).

Case Study A

W is a 30-year-old Iranian man who escaped government persecution and came to Australia to seek protection. W received SRSS payments as he had a number of serious health concerns that prevented him from working, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), epilepsy and diabetes.  When W received a negative decision and was told the only option was to appeal to the Courts, his SRSS payments were cut off. He was unable to pay for rent and was at risk of being evicted. Worse, he could not afford his medications and went for weeks at a time without insulin until he could borrow from friends. W was referred to the Vinnies Asylum Seeker Program in NSW, where financial assistance helped him to pay his rental arrears and stay in his accommodation. Even with this support, W remains very ill due to the stress of his visa conditions and the lack of options and support in Sydney.

Case Study B

X arrived by boat from Iran as a teenager and is seeking asylum. She currently holds a Bridging Visa but has applied for a SHEV (Safe Haven Enterprise Visa). She has managed to win a scholarship to study at a major university. The scholarship is for three years and provides her with an annual stipend of $2,500. She is expected to use this money in part to pay an administration fee of $500 and pay for books and any other items required for her course. Since being granted the scholarship, she has been informed that her SRSS benefit will no longer be paid. She is looking for part-time work but has not managed to find any yet.

Case Study C

Y and Z and their four children are Tamils seeking asylum who originally came from Sri Lanka. They escaped the civil war in that country by travelling to India, where they were told that they must return to Sri Lanka. Knowing that this was not an option, due to fears for their safety and ongoing persecution of Tamil people, they came to Australia by boat to seek asylum. They spent time in detention before being released into the community. Their application for a SHEV has been refused, despite clear evidence that people of Tamil background continue to be persecuted in Sri Lanka, especially those who have returned after seeking asylum elsewhere. The SRSS payments to the family of six were cut the moment the initial decision to refuse their application for a SHEV was made. They are appealing the decision – something that is very costly – and currently have no income whatsoever.

What are the implications of abandoning the notion of a universal safety net?

Since the middle of the twentieth century, Australia has committed to a universal safety net for all who live here. Partly this has been in response to the realisation since the Second World War that human rights for all people are important to guarantee peace and social cohesion. Partly, it is due to the Australian sense of a fair go for everyone and the notion that no one in a prosperous country such as ours should be condemned to poverty. Finally, it is due to an empathetic realisation that anyone of us could fall on hard times; and if that happened to us, we would like there to be a safety net.

Since the late twentieth century a countervailing view has gained momentum that promotes selfishness and idolises the very rich. In this vision, the marketplace has become the defining model for understanding people and society. People are valued, not because they have intrinsic worth, but because they have value to the market, which usually means that they have value to an employer. This narrow vision, which is dominant in the USA, has contributed to a global reduction in safety net payments, and an increasing exclusion of the people who already bear the brunt of inequality and poverty.

It is important to see how our treatment of people who need SRSS payments is part of a wider pattern of exclusion of certain groups. In Australia, we see similar policies enacted against those on Disability Support Pension, Newstart Allowance, Youth Allowance and Austudy.

It is therefore important that this particularly vulnerable group of people, who have often experienced great suffering in the country from which they have come, are extended a firm and secure safety net. If we begin to unravel the safety net under them, we may find that the safety net eventually unravels under us all.

Recommendations – policy asks

All people seeking asylum in Australia be issued with bridging visas with the right to work, the right to study, access to income support and Medicare.

That SRSS payments be paid on the basis of need to all those awaiting assessments or review of their claims for protection, including claims before the Courts. 

The eligibility criteria for SRSS payments be clearly set out in a public document that is published on the Department of Human Services website.

That the practice of denying SRSS payments to persons because they are studying or otherwise deemed eligible to work be discontinued. The criteria for the denial of the payment should be if the person is working and their income reaches a level which would exclude them if they were receiving Newstart Allowance.

That SRSS payments be increased to the level of the Newstart Allowance. 

What can you do to help asylum seekers and change the policy?

Click here to access a letter to send to your local Member of Parliament. 

Link with a local Vinnies support group for refugees and asylum seekers.

If in NSW you can download posters or contact social.justice@vinnies.org.au to order stickers to show your support.

Click here to sign up to a petition calling on Malcolm Turnbull to #ChangeThePolicy of cruelty and ensure their is a safety net to prevent people seeking asylum from falling into destitution.