Destitution For Unaccompanied Asylum Seekers Now Turning 18
16 January 2014 at 10:15 am
The plight of unaccompanied minors who sought asylum in Australia and have turned 18 as of January 1 remains uncertain – unable to work, attend school or even volunteer – under a Government policy that should be repealed, writes the CEO of Anglicare Victoria, Paul McDonald.
On January 1, over 250 of the unaccompanied minors residing in the community and seeking asylum “officially” turned 18 years of age. This is usually a milestone to be celebrated in Australia, but for these young people, there won’t be that much to celebrate.
Now 18, their future remains uncertain. They are unable to see Australia as a place of settlement. Supports have now been withdrawn as they are sent out into the community on their own. Most significantly, they will now be prevented from participating in or applying for work, they will be unable to attend any educational institution due to fees required, and in most circumstances they will even be unable to volunteer.
Over a year ago, the then Labor Federal Government decided any adult of 18 years or older arriving by boat after August 13, 2012 would be prohibited from the right to work, continue at school or participate in any training or volunteering opportunities whilst residing in the Australian community.
With over 30,000 asylum seekers in varying forms of community detention, on this date we saw the creation of two classes of asylum seekers – some with income and many with little or none. Some able to work and many now not. Some able to study and many now unable to. The result for those asylum seekers who are just barely over 18 is a life of inactivity in busy Australia. The potential for dire consequences on the physical and mental wellbeing for many of these young people is clear.
Ask any parent, policeman or politician whether it is good for any boy this age to do nothing every day for months on end. The answer will universally be “no”.
For any young man, regardless of citizenship or race, these years are some of the most critical. The ability to work, to be active, to participate in education at this stage in life fosters self-worth, good routines and most importantly resilience and personal development.
As one young man said to me recently: “I want to work, even if it’s a couple of hours. I want to be a good person, be happy in Australia and contribute in any way I can, like other boys I know.”
For many of the young unaccompanied minors I work with, the ability to work and be active is intrinsic to their sense of self, which in turn is bound up in their ability to work and develop themselves as young adults.
Yet what we – as a civilised Australian society – are serving up to these young men seems designed not to foster independence, but to instil a sense of destitution, despair and worthlessness. Without reversing this policy, we can virtually expect these young people to fall victim to their own desperation, possibly succumbing to the very behaviours that the Federal Government is wishing to avoid as outlined in their behaviour protocols.
To review this backward policy from a previous Government and allow these young people to work should not be about being seen to soften our border protection line or our approach to the “economic refugee”. It is far more significant than that. It is about ensuring the important rites of passage that an emerging young man needs to transition to irrespective of who they are, how they arrived here or the certainty of their future.
All parents know that to deny work activity or opportunity to a developing young person is a recipe for trouble. Trouble for them, trouble for the community and ultimately trouble for their future, wherever that may be.
It’s time to resolve this one small but important and disproportionately politicised policy area and allow the young people residing here to grow, develop and be given the opportunities that other Australian 18-year-olds enjoy while their future is being decided.
Let’s remember the 2013 Young Australian of the year, Akram Azimi, was also an Afghani refugee who arrived here when he was 13-years-old. Who knows, if we lessen the chains on this policy some of them may just turn out like him.
About the Author: Paul McDonald is the Chief Executive Officer of Anglicare Victoria, the State’s largest provider of foster care, family welfare and youth support services. He was previously a senior Government bureaucrat including as the Executive Director of the Children, Youth and Family Division for DHS, responsible for the leadership and management of Victoria’s Child Protection Program, Youth Justice Program, Family Services Programs and the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Program.