The precarious situation of asylum seekers in Australia has been heightened by Covid-19, as they struggle to find work, keep their children in school and put food on the table with little to no support from the government. By Mike Seccombe.

The impact of Covid-19 on asylum seekers

Fatma and her family.
Fatma and her family.
Credit: Asylum Seekers Centre

Fatma* is doing her best.

But, as she asks, somewhat rhetorically, how do you feel as a parent when your daughter, 13 years old, comes home hungry from school, having emptied her meagre lunch box by morning recess?

Or when your son, as identity conscious as any other 14-year-old, tells of his humiliation at his friends seeing him being presented with a box of food by a teacher? Or when you can’t give your children – she also has twin eight-year-olds – new shoes or the other stuff other kids have?

“Sometimes I hate myself,” she says, quietly. “I can’t pay my rent. I can’t feed my children.”

And a few months ago, as she absorbed the words of the acting Immigration minister, Alan Tudge, that non-citizens in Australia who could not support themselves through the coronavirus-induced economic crisis should go back to where they came from, she cried.

Because going back was not an option for her, or her children.

When she fled her strife-torn homeland in North Africa, says Fatma, “I was looking to be a good citizen in Australia. And to work. I want to feel like I’m someone here, I can do something here. I want to be independent.”

But that hasn’t happened. Instead, she and her family are caught up in a labyrinthine system by which the government stretches out the process of determining people’s claims for protection, subjecting them to years of uncertainty about their futures. This uncertainty in turn makes it harder for them to get work, while the government offers negligible support, in the hope they will eventually give up and go.

Professor Guy Goodwin-Gill, acting director of the University of New South Wales Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, succinctly termed the strategy by which the government seeks to avoid meeting its responsibilities under the Refugee Convention “deportation by destitution”.

More colloquially – and increasingly literally – it might be called a “starve them out” approach, for the economic effects of the coronavirus pandemic have left asylum seekers particularly vulnerable to unemployment. As they are deemed ineligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments, there is no social safety net to catch them.

There are now close to 100,000 people in Australia – those seeking asylum, on bridging visas – and, by the assessment of the advocates, up to 16,000 children of asylum-seeker families at risk of homelessness and destitution as a consequence of their exclusion.

This strategy of delay and destitution has, of course, also played out for the better part of seven years in Australia’s offshore detention centres. And as this regime winds up, much focus has been on the fate of those refugees on Manus Island and Nauru – and those transferred to Australia under the medevac scheme.

Hundreds of supporters gathered in Brisbane this week in an attempt to block the relocation of refugees from the Kangaroo Point hotel where they have been in long-term detention. Activists claimed the men were being moved to the Brisbane Immigration Transit Accommodation Centre to hide the ongoing protests from the public, and the media.

But more quietly, in recent years, for those asylum seekers living in the community on the Australian mainland, the meagre support provided by the government – through something called the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS), intended to aid asylum seekers while their claims are assessed – has been hacked away.

It was not very generous to begin with; the payment was lower than the standard unemployment benefit, providing the equivalent of about $35 a day – along with some casework support, access to torture and trauma counselling and, sometimes, subsidised medication.

From 2017 though, the eligibility criteria were tightened, drastically, so asylum seekers deemed capable of work were excluded, even if they had none.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, only about 5000 of the 97,000 seeking protection now have access to SRSS.

Sarah Dale, director and principal solicitor of the Refugee Advice and Casework Service, stresses the point: “The SRSS cuts didn’t mean there were fewer people needing help, it just meant the financial burden of supporting these vulnerable people fell outside the federal government and fell to charities supporting those who need it most.”

And then came Covid-19, rendering them more vulnerable still.

During this pandemic, asylum seekers are at particular risk of unemployment because many have only been able to access casual, short-term work as a consequence of their precarious visa situation. And also because their jobs tend to be concentrated in sectors particularly hard hit by the shutdown, such as hospitality.

They are also at greater risk of homelessness because some are in informal tenancy arrangements. The situation is likely to become much worse a few months from now, at the conclusion of a six-month moratorium on evictions that was agreed to by national cabinet in March.

Yet, says Jana Favero, director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, one of the many groups supporting and advocating for asylum claimants, asylum seekers are contributing to society while they wait. And wait.

“You have people who’ve been paying taxes and had jobs for six, seven, eight years. Then they lose their job and overnight they have no access to the safety nets,” she says.

In Fatma’s case, it hasn’t been that long. Still, almost three years after she arrived here on a flight, she, her partner, Aziz*, and their four children have not had their application for protection assessed – not even the primary departmental assessment.

In that time, Fatma, a French teacher by training, has had only a little cleaning work. Aziz, an engineer, first found work as a cleaner, then in construction. But since Covid-19 struck, his hours have been irregular.

“Sometimes he works two days, sometimes none. It’s been up and down all this time,” Fatma says.

The six of them live in a three-bedroom house in the outer suburbs of Sydney, for which they pay $440 a week. They now spend most of their income on rent but are often late. There have been times when they have had no food in the home.

It is only through the support of charities that her children are not hungry – or rather, hungrier. They have food parcels delivered to them every two weeks by the Newtown-based Asylum Seekers Centre. In the most recent fortnight, the centre provided 1038 such deliveries. Close to half of them – 46 per cent – went to households with dependent children.

The number of people in need of such help grows every week, not only for organisations that offer specialist support to asylum seekers, but also for what Favero calls “general emergency relief agencies, who people seeking asylum don’t usually go to” – the likes of Mission Australia, Anglicare et cetera.

Food is obviously critical, but the demand for other services – mental health, support in finding jobs and others – also has exploded in recent months.

Says Jana Favero: “Due to Covid-19, we’ve seen a threefold increase across all our services, specifically because of lack of access to JobSeeker and JobKeeper.

“We’ve lost almost 100 per cent of all job placements. There are no opportunities for people to get into jobs. Just in the first two months of the pandemic, March and April, we saw about 400 people who had lost work.”

The Covid-19 crisis has also had an impact on the schooling of asylum-seeker children – not only because they are disproportionately disadvantaged by remote learning, but also because in many cases they were dependent on the generosity of schools, sometimes individual teachers, for necessities such as meals and clothing.

Hannah Clarke is a teacher in Footscray, a suburb in the inner west of Melbourne. Even before the coronavirus, she noticed in her school community the growing deprivation among kids seeking asylum.

“You’re there in the classroom, you can see the kid doesn’t have anything in their lunch box, you can see that the kid doesn’t have a jacket on,” she says.

Her school has set up a food bank to provide for the kids the government has left behind.

“That’s in our foyer area, where families can come and help themselves to it when they need to, without therefore having to ask, because there’s a whole other level of sort of shame around that,” Clarke says.

Many schools, she says, also “have breakfast clubs, and lunch clubs to support families”.

“But in the nine weeks that they weren’t at school, they weren’t accessing that. So the families have had additional expenses of feeding their kids three times a day.”

As for clothing, Clarke says, the school does what it can, redistributing items from lost property. She has donated clothes her own children have outgrown to students who are without anything warm to wear in winter.

Clarke says she’s always telling her own kids, “Oh, great. You, you’ve grown out of that. I know someone who’ll fit it.”

The lack of financial support from the government becomes really clear when it comes to school events, such as excursions.

“If they were on Centrelink [payments], like other low-income families, they would have their excursions paid for,” Clarke says. “They would have their uniforms paid for; they would have all these things that there are systems in place for.

“But they keep slipping through the gaps, and the schools are solely doing that. And to be honest, some schools are doing it better than others.”

And when schools were shut down because of the virus, many of these children struggled to keep up with classroom work, because they lacked the technology needed to take part.

Fatma says that for her kids, this was not the case. She’s a qualified teacher and the schools her children attend provided two laptops, which her four children could share. But many other families were not so fortunate.

“Some of my students … were saying to me, sending me messages saying, ‘Sorry, I couldn’t get on today. My dad’s mobile ran out,’ ” says Clarke. “They were hotspotting the whole nine weeks of remote learning.”

Commonly, too, parents were unable to help, because they lacked the education or language skills to do so or, for some, because they were performing jobs that were deemed to be essential.

“It was a funny scenario where some lost work, but then some, because they were either cleaners or in the food packing industry … kept going, but with very limited pay,” says Clarke.

While provision was made for the children of essential workers to attend school, often these kids did not. Clarke puts it down to the fear of getting the virus and not having access to healthcare. Whatever the reason, many did not attend, and some did not come back after schools reopened.

The educational disadvantage of the children of asylum seekers and refugees was exacerbated by the virus, but it also existed before Covid-19.

Dorothy Hoddinott, AO, was the principal of Holroyd High School in Sydney from 1995 until her retirement in 2018. During that time, the proportion of children from non-English-speaking backgrounds grew from about 25 per cent to 83 per cent.

The make-up of the student body changed too, from being heavily Eastern European – with many kids from the former Yugoslavia – to include a growing cohort of children from Afghanistan and various Arabic-speaking backgrounds, Kurds, some Chinese students and, most recently, North Africans.

It’s hard for all immigrant groups, she says, but harder for asylum seekers.

Hoddinott also acknowledges that during the current crisis, the government has denied support to a wide range of non-citizens – students, temporary workers – but she says the situation is more dire for asylum seekers than others for a number of reasons.

For a start, she says, “Almost everybody who is an asylum seeker has been through significant trauma …

“Then there is the uncertainty of the situation that threatens to put them back into detention. The fear of deportation.

“A lot of people, when they flee from where they are, leave in a great hurry, maybe only with the clothes they wear. They don’t accumulate a great deal more in refugee diaspora. So they don’t have things that you and I might consider basic.”

Most don’t have support networks either.

And then there’s the issue of navigating the new systems in a new country.

“We had to set up travel training for children at the school, to teach them how to travel safely to and from school by bus or train,” says Hoddinott. “How to use an escalator.”

In her time at Holroyd, she worked to provide computers for these children. But that went only partway to addressing their disadvantage, for many lived in cramped accommodation and lacked an internet connection at home.

So, they worked from the school library or from public libraries. But during the coronavirus shutdown, of course, those options were cut off.

Hoddinott worries in particular for those kids in year 12, whose schooling has been so disrupted, and whose exams will coincide with the end of the eviction moratorium. But her concern goes beyond their education, to their mental and physical health.

Asylum-seeker children, she says, should not have to carry their parents’ anxiety, but often they do, an anxiety that’s exacerbated by the design of our immigration system.

She worries about the kind of country Australia is becoming under this government, notwithstanding the deep well of goodwill she sees in the community.

“The idea that they [the federal government] would disengage from a whole section of the community at a time of national crisis is wrong,” she says.

“It’s a fairness thing, really. I think that the government has a duty of care to see that people don’t starve on its watch and don’t become totally destitute or indigent as a result of government policy.

“Even in recession, we are still a wealthy country. We shouldn’t have groups of people who might die because the government has not made basic safety-net provisions for them.

“These policies have been uncivil in the extreme. And they’re not accidental, they’re quite deliberate.

“It’s not my Australia, actually.”

And yet Fatma, and thousands like her, still want this to be their Australia. If only the government would let them.

* Not their real names.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 20, 2020 as "Seeking support".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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