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The Turnbull government’s policy of reducing support for asylum seekers living in Australia has left refugee advocates fearing political ideology will leave people homeless. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Asylum seekers left to fend for themselves

Nasiba Akram, of the refugee advocacy charity Project: Humanity.
Credit: Supplied

Nasiba Akram was working in the office of Afghanistan’s foreign minister when members of the People’s Democratic Party – the country’s minority communist party – assassinated President Sardar Mohammad Daoud Khan and most of his family on April 28, 1978. Their bodies were dumped in a secret mass grave, where they wouldn’t be discovered for 30 years. It was the beginning of Afghanistan’s Saur Revolution, just five years after Khan himself had come to power in his own coup, aided by the communists. Relations between the two had turned fatally sour over Daoud Khan’s perceived “bourgeois” values and discomforting closeness to the Americans. 

At the time, Akram and her family, all well educated, enjoyed high positions in the Khan government. “I was connected to the president,” she tells me. “He was like a godfather to me.”

After the communist coup, those connections quickly became deadly. The new government, like its Stalinist model, was capricious, paranoid and murderous. Akbar knew the lives of her family, and her own, were imperilled. “Within 24 hours, we had no man left in the family,” Akram says. “My brothers were arrested. Some were never seen again. Due to my connections, background, work, they wanted to arrest me and I had to escape. First, I went by land to Pakistan. It did not work, and I came back to Kabul by car. The second time I flew by plane, this time to India and applied for refugee status there. I was sent to Paris to wait for the period of assessing my papers, and then
I came to Australia.”

Akram arrived in Sydney in May 1979. She was already familiar with the city, having studied at the University of New South Wales earlier that decade. She’d felt homesick as a student – now returned, she realised she might never see Afghanistan, or her family, again.

With a degree in journalism, and interpretation skills, Akram was working at SBS within a few years, helping produce and broadcast radio shows. This was the early 1980s, the bloodiest years of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in one broadcast Akram began reading a news item about a battle in an Afghan village – one terribly familiar to her. She had lost more family members.

When the Soviet–Afghan War ended in 1989, communist Afghan leaders began quietly dispersing around the globe, including to Australia. In 1992, Akram heard from distressed, incredulous friends that they had seen “him” at a funeral. It was General Abdul Qader Miakhel – a feared commander of the notorious communist secret police, the KHAD. “This is when I stood up
and said, ‘You can’t bring killers of our family and give them safe haven here,’ ” Akram says.

She lobbied, at great personal cost and exhaustion, for the revision of Australian laws in respect to the accommodation of war criminals. She says she failed. “I had a breakdown at the end,” she says.

Today, she continues to lobby the government – this time on behalf of asylum seekers. For the past eight years Akram has worked for an organisation that provides government-funded services to refugees. She won’t name the organisation, but says she left it out of frustration. In recent weeks, along with refugee advocate Sarah Smith, she has founded the charity Project: Humanity. The motivation for founding this organisation, Akram says, is now her guiding one: she fears that recent changes to the government’s Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) scheme will render thousands of asylum seekers homeless in the next 12 months. 

Last year, the Australian government removed SSRS from almost 100 people who had been transferred to Australia from Manus and Nauru for medical treatment. Currently, approximately 13,500 asylum seekers in Australia receive some variety of support via the scheme while their asylum applications are processed – in some cases, they have languished in a sort of suspension of citizenship for more than five years.

The scheme offers recipients a payment – about 89 per cent of the Newstart unemployment allowance – and, in some cases, a percentage of family support payments, access to caseworkers and trauma counselling. Until relatively recently, work rights were not enjoyed by SRSS recipients, obliging the government to help support applicants until their status was resolved. While administered by the Department of Human Services, ultimate responsibility for the program rests with Home Affairs and its minister, Peter Dutton, who enjoys vast discretionary powers over its dispensation.

From last month, the government began rolling out a reduced level of SRSS support, with higher vulnerability thresholds and eligibility criteria. Those who have sent money to their country of origin have already been cut from the program, and service providers are now hearing of people who’ve had payments cut because they are studying full-time. The government has said: “Individuals on a bridging visa with work rights, and who have the capacity to work, are expected to support themselves while their immigration status is being resolved. Individuals who undertake full-time study instead of seeking employment may be ineligible for SRSS.”

The government has stressed “work readiness”, and while the reinstatement of work rights to a group of people who, in some cases, have been excluded from the labour market for years seems commendable, service providers and refugee advocates have told The Saturday Paper that the government has done little to support that transition. “They will give them the right to work, but with what skills?” Nasiba Akram says. “What services are available for them to gain employment, to reach that goal? If they were given enough time to make themselves ready, and if they will provide enough support in this process, and if they had a period of six or seven months, and courses were provided to them, and employment agencies were responsible for them – I would agree with that. But this was a bombshell dropped on them.”

The lack of consultation was a theme echoed by Dr Joyce Chia of the Refugee Council. “Engagement with the department – well, it’s been difficult. It’s pretty clear that they have a policy and haven’t been swayed by arguments to the contrary. We get the feeling it’s been driven by the minister. Their responses have been delayed, and little notice given to the sector. The first round of cuts, providers heard the day before. I remember speaking with state government officials two days before and they had been told that changes weren’t happening. So it’s hard to mitigate the harm in that environment ... The government has done nothing to help people transition. They didn’t tell us until the last minute. They’ve provided no extra funding for employ assistance. The Jobactive scheme, which is just a computer and internet access – we think it’s an ineffective program, especially for migrants.

“We get phone calls all the time from people asking what to do. Students asking whether they give up scholarships, because they’ll give up their income. People are anxious about it. We’re hearing reports of self-harm.”

Sister Brigid Arthur, of the Catholic Alliance for People Seeking Asylum, told The Saturday Paper that she supported work rights and that employment was often critical in helping mental illness and social engagement. “But we’ve seen no program for work preparation,” she said.

A former executive with the Department of Immigration tells me there’s a bitter irony at play. At the peak of asylum processing, during the Rudd–Gillard years, the source says the government was processing 1000 applications a month. “When Abbott came in, they started creating a ‘fast-track’ process. But it hasn’t worked out that way. It hasn’t been fast. It was much more complicated than they anticipated. One reason, I think, is that at the time [Scott] Morrison was more focused on stopping arrivals than processing the ones already arrived – because they were Labor’s arrivals. That was the political aspect.

“Remember, there’s some [people] in that cohort who have maybe a wife and three kids who they haven’t seen in five years, who aren’t in the best circumstances – they’re in a camp. Now you’re a TPV [temporary protection visa], if you leave [the country] you can’t come back in. No family reunion. So you’ve just got FaceTime to watch your kids grow up.”  

Perhaps the greatest fear for refugee groups around the cuts to SRSS is an increase in homelessness. Dr John Falzon, chief executive of the St Vincent de Paul Society, said in April he feared that the changes would lead to destitution.

“Once you have people sleeping on the streets, not taking medicine, [it] ends up costing the government more. Now, we struggled before, with much less than this current projected demand,” Joyce Chia tells me. “The cost of housing someone is extraordinary. Less than 100 people cut off last year – that was difficult. That was a [relatively] fairly small group of people. Multiply that out. People are now taking people into their houses. Not something we like to do – there’s a lot of ethical questions there. But that is happening, service providers and members of the community. So, we don’t know how this will be absorbed. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sector so terrified.”

Nasiba Akram agrees: “The main thing is relieving people of poverty. Helping with employment. Language classes. Legal advice. I have a good network of community contacts. We can help give them some self-esteem and move forward for themselves. I will teach them how to fish.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "Onshore attention". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.