Asylum seekers in limbo
Sadoullah Malakooti, a Kurdish asylum seeker in Melbourne, has been sick for a week. He could not get out of bed and suffered severe headaches, diarrhoea, fever. When I ask him if he has been to see a doctor, he tells me he could not because he doesn’t have Medicare and he has no money to pay the fee. It has been more than a month since he attempted to renew his and his three children’s Medicare cards after they expired. At the Medicare office, they couldn’t find his name in the system and told him to call the Department of Home Affairs. When he did, he was told he’s “illegal in this country, he has to leave”. We speak for no more than a minute; his voice is coarse and hushed, as if he was speaking from under a blanket.
For the past six years, Malakooti has been living with his children in Melbourne on a bridging visa. Earlier this year, I documented his story in The Saturday Paper – the Department of Home Affairs rejected his refugee application and cut his welfare payments a month before his bridging visa expired, which left him and his children without food for many days. Following my report, there was a “big response”, The Saturday Paper’s editor told me; readers from across Australia inundated the paper’s office with phone calls and emails. They were outraged. They wanted to help. I also received messages in my Facebook inbox. I spent days responding to those calls and messages of kindness. People offered Malakooti jobs, their homes to stay in, holiday packages for his children in New South Wales during school break, even to do his cleaning and washing.
A couple, from Bendigo, Victoria, who were in their 60s, sent an email asking Malakooti’s family to come and live with them in a “magical forest … a desert lifestyle”. A school and shops were nearby, they said. “We are saying come and live here while you get on your feet. We can feed you. No rent. You do some of the tasks to help us keep the place functioning, e.g. gathering and chopping wood, like the WWOOFer [farm homestay] system. I will be like a nana to the girls,” they wrote. “We are both artists, used to scraping a life together. I know you need to be wary of mad offers from unknown people … We can help one family find a safe place, we are doing something real in this troubled world … When you feel safe, you will be able to think of your next moves.”
Malakooti was overwhelmed by the generosity of people that poured from everywhere. “I am so touched by these offers of help,” he said, telling me that he “loved the Australian people”. His best friends are an Australian family with whom his children play and with whom they have celebrated their birthdays over the past six years. But he felt uncomfortable spending the first reader’s donation that came into his account to buy groceries for his children. “I am not used to this,” he said. “I always worked when I was in my country. I did not come here for charity.” When I told him that large organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army run entirely on charity, he finally swallowed his pride. “I have no option. I do it for my children.”
He hoped the government would change its mind. But his rent was already two weeks in arrears. A caseworker told him he would end up living on the street. “Let me live on the street,” he said. “Then the government will [be] compelled to help me.” But the caseworker told him the government would not care. So, reluctantly, Malakooti went to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, to sign papers and get his rent paid.
The Edmund Rice Centre in Sydney collected money on Malakooti’s behalf, passing it on to him in fortnightly payments to buy groceries, but the donations ran out a month ago. Since then, he and his family have been living on borrowed money. The ASRC, he said, told him they could only pay his rent until March next year, because he does not have a visa.
For Malakooti, already struggling with his wife’s death, the responsibility of caring for three small children with so little money weighs on him. The news about his visa plunged him deeper into depression. He pushed himself to care for his children, preparing them for their schools, making them breakfast, lunch and dinner and washing their clothes. “They are the reasons I am alive,” he told me. He was worried about being forced to return to his country and killed. Yet, in Australia, in limbo, life without healthcare or work was “no better than death”.
He has tried to keep the news about the visa from his children, but they have noticed. They are quiet at home now, not laughing or talking as much as before. They spend a lot of time in their rooms. They stopped doing their homework. His eldest daughter, Yekta, 14, has recently experienced severe struggles with her mental health and began to see a psychologist – but that too requires a Medicare card in order to continue.
This year, the Department of Home Affairs has cut Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payments to 1000 asylum seekers. It intends to cut off a further 8000 asylum seekers’ SRSS payments next year. This will leave four out of five asylum seekers destitute and homeless, according to a report published by the Refugee Council of Australia. “The changes represent an unnecessary penalty for a group already rendered vulnerable by the immigration status resolution process,” it reads. The cuts will “leave many people without access to income, casework support, vital medication and mental health counselling”. State governments and community organisations will be left to fill the gap, estimated to be about $120 million a year, according to the report.
“What this report shows is that these families will only be pushed further into poverty and isolation as a result of changes to SRSS,” says John van Kooy, the lead author of the report. “Worryingly, many of these service providers simply do not have the capacity to provide the help that’s needed.”
When asked about the cuts to support payments by The Saturday Paper, the Department of Home Affairs responded: “The SRSS is not a social welfare program … It is designed to provide support for certain non-citizens who are in the Australian community temporarily while their immigration status is being determined.”
Malakooti’s refugee application was rejected under the “fast-track” system, which was introduced by the Abbott government in late 2014 for all asylum seekers who arrived by boat between August 13, 2012 and January 1, 2014. The system came into effect in April 2015, and severely limits avenues of appeal. Initially, it was intended to deal with the legacy caseload of 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia after August 2012. Five years on, 11,513 people are still waiting for their claims to be processed. Most, like Malakooti, are Iranian, followed in number by Sri Lankan and stateless people. Of the 19,000 or so asylum seekers who have been granted protection under the system, 71 per cent were granted protection visas and the rest were rejected.
At the recent federal Labor Party conference, members voted down a proposal to give asylum seekers who have been rejected under the Coalition’s fast-track system – some 6000 people – access to a full merits review. Labor did, however, vote to bring to Australia asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island in need of medical treatment. They also supported providing a social safety net for asylum seekers still under assessment, which would include “means-tested access to funded migration assistance, and to appropriate social services, including income, crisis housing, healthcare, mental health, community, education and English” classes. Labor committed to a refugee intake of 270,000 people, an increase of 5000 places a year for community-sponsored refugee programs, and to providing the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees with $500 million worth of funding.
Sarah Dale, principal solicitor for the Refugee Advice and Casework Service (RACS), told me that Hazara people have been most affected by the policy. Despite changes for the worse in their home country of Afghanistan, “there is no recourse to have these decisions revisited”. The only way for asylum seekers to get their application reassessed is an intervention by the minister. Dale says that while she has seen ministerial intervention on refugee applications during her time at RACs, it appears compassion is reserved for European au pairs. I spoke to a Hazara asylum seeker in Sydney whose refugee application was rejected under the fast-track system three years ago. He was told that his home district, Jaghori, was safe. After the Abbott government deported the first Hazara, Zainullah Naseri, to Afghanistan on grounds that it was safe for him to return, he was captured by the Taliban on the way to Jaghori and tortured.
Last month, the Taliban launched a major attack on Jaghori. Thousands of Hazaras, including my own cousins and relatives, fled their homes, many into the freezing mountains on a bracing night, without any food or water. The New York Times reported the panicked flight. “We fled, too, along mountain tracks barely visible in the darkness,” reporter Rod Nordland wrote. That story appeared on November 12, 2018. It was the largest exodus of Hazaras since the Taliban was toppled in 2001. The district, according to a UN briefing on November 14, was under “siege-like conditions with no access to health facilities and limited availability of food, fuel and medicine”. Most Hazara asylum seekers in Australia come from Jaghori. The Hazara community in Australia held vigil nights, protested in Canberra and wrote letters to Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, asking them to condemn the Taliban’s attack or pressure the Afghan government to protect the Hazaras. They received no responses. And still, the government says it’s safe to go back.
In April, Malakooti lodged his appeal with the Federal Court, which allows him to stay in the country until his court hearing. This will likely happen some time next year. He is not optimistic about the outcome.
When I spoke to him again on Wednesday afternoon, though, he was feeling better. He said he tried some home remedy – lemon and nabat, a sweet rock candy – to get better. He’d picked up his children from school and cooked them dinner. But he worries, still, about how to get food for his children. And what if they became sick and couldn’t see a doctor? Australia’s asylum system is punitive, but children, he says, “should not be punished”.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 22, 2018 as "Life in limbo". Subscribe here.