Asylum seekers’ benefits cut by Home Affairs
A few days before Easter, I got a call from Sadoullah Malakooti. Malakooti is an asylum seeker who lost his wife in the sinking of a refugee boat about five years ago. His voice was breaking. He said the Department of Home Affairs had cut his Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payment. This is the money that pays for rent and food and everything else for himself and his three young daughters while he awaits a final decision on their visas. “I was looking forward to take my children for a short holiday in the Easter,” he said with a hoarse voice. “Now I have no money to do anything.”
Malakooti, aged 41, and his daughters live in a northern suburb of Melbourne. His bridging visa is due to expire on April 16 but his payment was stopped almost a month earlier. “They didn’t give me any notice … I don’t know what to do, where to find money to feed my children.”
This is the reality of this policy: refugees are being starved out.
Malakooti used to receive about $600 a week for himself and his three children, two-thirds of which went towards rent. The rest, he spent on food, petrol to take his children to school, a mobile phone and internet. “Everything in my house is second-hand: the couch, the blanket, and the plates,” he says. “Even my children’s toys, somebody collected from the street and gave it me.” The only thing that is not second-hand is a toaster, which he bought for $20. For two years, Malakooti said, he could not afford a vacuum cleaner; he cleans his house with a brush or cloths.
Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton intends to cut the payments of about 7000 asylum seekers from June, ostensibly to push those who are “job-ready” to work. Nearly 100 organisations, including the Refugee Council of Australia and Australian Council of Social Service (ACOSS), banded together to ask the government to “urgently reverse” its decision.
“What are people meant to do with no income at all? How can they feed and get their children to school?” ACOSS chief executive officer Cassandra Goldie said. “As a country, do we think it is acceptable that children go without meals, education, and a roof over their head?”
In response to questions from The Saturday Paper, asking how the department assesses the situation of vulnerable asylum seekers, including children, before cutting income support, it 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.
“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. The eligibility of SRSS recipients is regularly reviewed. People will be referred to jobactive if they need assistance finding work.”
Cutting essential income support, or weaponising food in order to pressure asylum seekers, is a new tactic by Dutton. In May last year, Dutton warned that “the game’s up” for 7500 asylum seekers in Australia on bridging visas: they had to apply for protection by October 2017 or have their income support cut. Again, in August last year, Dutton cut income support to 400 asylum seekers who had been brought from Nauru for medical treatment, attempting to pressure them to return to Nauru.
Paul Ronalds, chief executive officer of Save the Children, said: “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.”
I came across a young asylum seeker in Sydney last year who was brought from Nauru for medical treatment and whose payment was cut. While battling ill health, he lived in destitution, was hungry and at risk of suicide before a family took him to Melbourne.
For Malakooti, this income cut is the last blow. He is deeply traumatised. Like many on bridging visas whom I’ve interviewed over the years, he is caught in a quagmire of pervasive despair, always anxious about when this uncertainty will end. More than 10 people in his position have committed suicide in the past four years.
Malakooti sought asylum to Australia on that ill-fated boat in 2013. In Iran, a stateless Kurd, he and his family could not access public services such as education, employment and hospitals. He says he was harassed by the authorities, detained and beaten up. One day, a friend and fellow Kurd who worked alongside him in the Tehran Bazaar disappeared. Later, his friend’s corpse was returned to his family. It bore the marks of torture by the notorious Islamic Revolutionary Guard. Fearing he was next, he sold everything so his family could leave and seek asylum.
They made it to Indonesia, where they were crammed onto a small boat with 180 others. The boat leaked, foundered in the open sea for 24 hours, then capsized. His wife was one of about 30 people who drowned. After a short time in a detention centre, he and his daughters, the youngest of whom was only seven months old, were released into the community on bridging visas. The stress, grief and uncertainty was enormous. Three years ago, Malakooti attempted suicide.
n December 2015, when I met him for the first time at his red-brick home, he was still consumed by grief and trauma. He had deep-set eyes that seemed to be sinking into his face. His three daughters – Yekta, now 11, Paria, 9 and Raha, 5 – were sitting on the sofa, playing and watching television. The children all spoke in English with an Australian accent, and although Malakooti had only a fumbling grasp of the language, he was caring, soft-spoken and attentive to their needs.
As we sat under the fig tree at the back of his house, he talked about his trauma, about his uncertain future, about the future of his children. He did not want to talk about his wife in front of his children. “They get upset,” he said. “I am always thinking about my wife, how she drowned.”
As he told me this, his eyes filled with tears. He said he had difficulty sleeping at night, suffering headaches that went for days. He struggled to support his children, even with government assistance. “If people can take care of my children, I go and work. I could support my children financially and I feel a little better,” he said. “I can’t do anything in this current situation.”
As an asylum seeker, he is not eligible for child-care benefits.
Malakooti fears returning to Iran. He is terrified of the authorities that killed his friend. He also fears his late wife’s brother, who works for the Revolutionary Guard and, blaming him for her death, has “threatened to chop my body into pieces if I return to Iran”.
Malakooti had waited for five years before the immigration department even interviewed him about his protection visa. For three hours, he spoke of his history, his trauma and his fears. But the department rejected his protection claim in November last year, saying he was not “stateless”. Five months later, the Immigration Assessment Authority reviewed his claim and affirmed the department’s decision not to grant Malakooti and his three children protection visas.
The Immigration Assessment Authority was created in 2015 by Peter Dutton, removing access to government-funded legal representation in most cases and denying asylum seekers an independent assessment by a court. The assessment authority won’t consider new evidence – in Malakooti’s case, information about Kurds and statelessness as well as the state of his mental health.
His lawyer argued Malakooti belonged to the UNHCR-defined category of “psychologically vulnerable applicant” whose trauma has affected “his ability to engage in the visa application process”. The assessor from Immigration Assessment Authority disagreed.
Malakooti’s mental state has spiralled downwards in the time I have known him. He has been given a month either to leave the country or pursue his case in the Federal Court. He told me he has little faith for getting his claim fairly assessed. “This is all designed to fail you, not to accept you. I don’t believe in this system anymore…” he said. “If I had a real chance of living in Iran, I won’t accept this torturous life. Every day is a torture here.”
That torture is now one of starvation, too. He and his children face a real risk of homelessness. Without support, or job prospects, the government has damned him to destitution and possibly deportation. Malakooti is not alone in this and nor is it an accident of government: this is the inevitable outcome of Dutton’s crackdown.
“I risked everything for my children,” Malakooti says. “Maybe if I am not here, my children could have a future. I am really tired, I can’t cope anymore.”
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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 14, 2018 as "‘All designed to fail you’". Subscribe here.