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Sector Rallies Over Asylum Seeker Welfare Crackdown

29 August 2017 at 8:44 am
Wendy Williams
The social sector has rallied behind refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of the Australian government’s decision to strip up to 400 Australian-based asylum seekers of welfare payments and accommodation.

Wendy Williams | 29 August 2017 at 8:44 am


Sector Rallies Over Asylum Seeker Welfare Crackdown
29 August 2017 at 8:44 am

The social sector has rallied behind refugees and asylum seekers in the wake of the Australian government’s decision to strip up to 400 Australian-based asylum seekers of welfare payments and accommodation.

Under new visa conditions, which were revealed over the weekend and came into effect on Monday, the government has stopped income support of about $200 a fortnight and given asylum seekers just three weeks to move out of government-supported accommodation.

According to Immigration Minister Peter Dutton, the asylum seekers, who were originally transported to Australia from Nauru or Manus for medical treatment, have found “tricky legal moves” to stay in the country “costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars for each individual”.

But the news has been greeted with outrage by the social sector which is hailing the move “savage and cruel” and has united to resist the crackdown and plan a response, including aid, accommodation and a public campaign.

Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which launched a donation drive following a pledge to house and support an estimated 200 people living in Melbourne, told Pro Bono News the latest move was a ploy by the federal government to “make life in Melbourne worse for people than life in Nauru”.

“What the government is fundamentally trying to do is simple; they are trying to starve babies, pregnant women, rape survivors, women, children, men and families. They are trying to starve them all to make life so miserable and intolerable in our country that these people give up all hope and go back in harm’s way on Manus and Nauru,” Karapanagiotidis said.

“Here is a government that again is showing failed leadership, failed values, failed policies, that would rather continue to harm and damage families and harm and damage babies, rather than doing the simple thing of protecting them.

“These are people who call Australia home, 50 of these are children who were born in this country, that are going to school in this country and we could easily care for them.”

Karapanagiotidis said the government was relying on the refugee sector to be at capacity, but in the face of such treatment refugee organisations around the country had rallied to the cause.

“We are already at capacity and we are already at breaking point, but what do we do?” he said.

“We decided as an organisation this morning that in spite of being at capacity and in spite of not having the money we need to respond, we need to take a moral stance, we need to lead with our values and what that means is we’re going to take every one – my understanding is that 50 per cent of the 410 are here in Melbourne – we’re going to take them all in.

“We’ll house anyone who needs housing, we’ll feed anyone who needs feeding, we’ll try to get as many who are able to work into jobs, although that is a challenge as well.

“It is a challenge because for four years they haven’t been able to work and they haven’t been allowed to study. The visa they have been given is a final departure visa which is a bridging visa which doesn’t exactly make you attractive to employers does it?”

ASRC expect they will need $1 million over the next six months to care for the near-200 asylum seekers in Melbourne.

But Karapanagiotidis said he expected Australians to get behind the cause, and said there was “no way” the refugee sector would allow these people, who have now been placed on a new Final Departure Bridging E visa, to be returned to Nauru.

Dr John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council, said it was “shameful” to cast people onto the street and “make them destitute in a cynical attempt to force them to return to the countries from which they have fled”.

“This latest development is designed to inflict suffering and anguish on one group of people, but in doing so it is also creating a nastier, meaner Australia,” Falzon said.

Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said practical answers needed to be found for these people “who had suffered” as a result of the government’s offshore processing policy.

“The world regards those detained on Nauru and Manus as Australia’s responsibility. History tells us that Australia must step up and accept its responsibilities,” Power said.

“Between 2002 and 2008, 1,135 refugees were resettled from Manus and Nauru, 705 of them settling peacefully in Australia. More than 600 of these refugees were brought to Australia under the prime ministership of John Howard.

“The Turnbull government should learn from the lessons of the past, rescind this cruel attack and find lasting answers for those detained in offshore processing arrangements.”

Save the Children which formerly supported children and families on Nauru, also expressed alarm at the prospect of children currently living in Australia being returned to Nauru.

Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds said the cuts of financial assistance to “innocent and vulnerable people who have been living peacefully in our community”, were “shocking, unnecessarily cruel and serve no legitimate purpose”.

“We are greatly concerned that children and families we worked with on Nauru may be among those impacted by these changes in the future, which could leave them destitute and forced to either return to harsh and dangerous conditions in Nauru or return to places they’ve fled for fear of persecution,” Ronalds said.

“We know from our time working on Nauru that it’s not a safe or sustainable place for refugee children to live.  Forcing people back to Manus Island or Nauru at this time is particularly harsh, with the uncertainty of the US resettlement deal offering no real end in sight for these innocent people, who just need a safe place to rebuild their lives.

“It is astonishing that the government would use these tactics to pressure people to leave behind their lives in Australia and place their children back in harm’s way.”

It comes as the Australian Lawyers for Human Rights (ALHR) raised concerns the move was a breach of international obligations.

Khanh Hoang, co-chair of the Refugee Rights subcommittee said attempts to force refugees back to their home country or Nauru or Papua New Guinea may breach Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention and international human rights law.

“The refugees involved must be given a durable solution. Sending people back to Manus Island or Nauru is not an option and will place people in serious danger,” Hoang said.

ALHR also considered that cutting this group off government support, when most have never had the right to work in Australia, would likely breach Australia’s obligations under the International Covenant and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and, where children are involved, the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Scott Cosgriff, co-chair of ALHR’s Refugee Rights subcommittee said it was about “basic decency”.

“The people we’re talking about include some of the most vulnerable and traumatised in our country,” Cosgriff said.

“Under human rights law, no person should be denied an adequate standard of living, and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found this year that the social security safety net for most people seeking asylum in Australia safety is inadequate. For the group affected by the new policy there is now no safety net at all.”

The Human Rights Law Centre executive director Hugh de Kretser said it was “a shocking act of cruelty”.

“We are talking about people who have been in Australia, some for several years. They have endured unimaginable suffering but are finally starting to rebuild their lives in freedom and safety in our communities. Then now, out of the blue, Dutton is trying to force them back to danger by making them destitute,” de Kretser said.

Dutton has since poured further fuel on the issue by describing the lawyers representing asylum seekers trying to stay in the country as “un-Australian”.

Speaking to Alan Jones on 2GB radio on Monday, Dutton said: “These lawyers have been playing the game with these people who are willing participants and we’re a generous nation, but we’re not going to be taken for a ride.”

Law Council of Australia said his comments were “regrettable and misguided”.

“It is true that the legal rights of individuals can be an inconvenience to government, so attacking the legal professionals who work pro bono to defend those rights is truly extraordinary,” Law Council of Australia president, Fiona McLeod SC said.

“There is nothing more Australian than ensuring people are subject to the rule of law and have their legal rights protected.

“The Australian legal system reflects fundamental Australian values, including the right to have your case heard, the right to not be arbitrarily detained and the right not to be subjected to cruel or inhumane treatment.

“It is often the case that those seeking asylum are fleeing countries where the rule of law has broken-down

“We have a long and proud history of politicians understanding the importance of showing respect for the independence of our legal system. Today’s comments represent an extraordinary break with that history.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.


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