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Without warning, the government has removed all support from hundreds of refugees in community detention – denying them housing and income support. By Rick Morton.

Exclusive: War on refugees moves to final phase onshore

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a press conference at Brendale, north of Brisbane, on Tuesday.
Credit: AAP Image / Dave Hunt

The first sign something had shifted came in late August, when letters began arriving from the Department of Home Affairs. Written entirely in English, they were addressed to refugees who had been brought to Australia for medical treatment and then remained in the community. The letters announced that these people would be shifted to a different visa class. They would be given work rights for the first time, but beyond that would lose all government support. They would be evicted from their housing and their income supplements ended. They will, however, gain access to Medicare. At the same time, this group loses specific funding for complex health needs and the income support – 60 per cent of the relevant Centrelink payment – that would allow them to more readily access appointments. The letters said these changes would come into effect in three weeks.

“We knew, or suspected, that there would be more, and we were trying to do as much as we could to prepare…” says Kate Leaney, campaigns and communications manager at Welcoming Australia. “We were never sure of how many there would be, and we didn’t know what the timing would be.”

The government moved quickly. Throughout September, the letters kept arriving. So far, more than 500 men, women and children have been placed onto final departure bridging E visas and told to leave Australia. When Covid-19 restrictions ease in Victoria, about 160 more people will be added to the list.

“It is just devastating,” says Leaney, “and it feels very intentional.”

The vast majority of these people have been assessed as refugees. They represent some of the most vulnerable and acutely unwell people in Australia.

Physically they suffer from malnutrition, untreated dental infections, cancer, stroke, debilitating autoimmune conditions and a litany of other infections or chronic health conditions. Some also endure severe psychological breakdowns caused by indefinite detention, which manifest as psychosomatic disorders, suicidal ideation and dissociation. For most, the treatment is complex and ongoing.

Since 2017, the Coalition has been slowly moving through the population of refugees and asylum seekers living in Australia without long-term residency rights and shifting them onto final departure visas.

Until now, there has been a vulnerability criterion that exempted couples, families with children and the seriously unwell. This is the group that began receiving letters in August. The fact sheet from Home Affairs is clear: “The Australian Government has made the decision that you are no longer entitled to government welfare support including accommodation and income support.”

After years without work rights, these people will be expected to find jobs to cover all of their expenses. They will do so in the worst employment climate since the Great Depression. Figures from Anglicare Australia, published on Wednesday, show there are 106 unemployed people competing for each entry-level job in Australia.

The Refugee Council of Australia asked Home Affairs how the risk of pushing children into homelessness squares with its own “child safeguarding framework”, but says the department “was not able to give a definitive answer”.

Home Affairs told the council that “state-specific child welfare agencies will take ownership of this” – but it is not clear whether child protection authorities in these jurisdictions were even informed before the visa changes.

“Children who are only just returning to schools around the country will be facing homelessness,” Human Rights Law Centre legal director David Burke told The Saturday Paper. “Mothers and fathers will be terrified, wondering how they will put food on the table. In the middle of a recession and a pandemic, this decision leaves people without any prospects for work and without any means to support themselves.”

 

The expanded use of final departure visas marks an escalation in the federal government’s systematic dismantling of Australia’s refugee apparatus. Those in the medical and refugee sector see these visas as a last move in a war of attrition.

“They make it so hard for people to live here that they try and push people to go home, but at the end of the day people can’t, or they won’t, for their safety,” says Tracey Cabrie, the centre manager at the Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub in Melbourne.

“We had a 72-year-old at our service who was being forced to go and look for work, who’d never worked in Australia before, which was just ridiculous.”

Having largely closed offshore detention, the government is now taking apart the architecture of its onshore program. Since August, Home Affairs has been quietly terminating lease agreements with private landlords. If refugees wish to remain in their houses, they must pay the rent themselves and have the landlord accept their tenancy.

Charities fear they will be overwhelmed by demand from these visa holders, who will essentially be rendered destitute by the change.

“What we find is that for most people there is almost a period of shock when they receive these specific dates and the insinuation that they need to leave the country,” says Kate Leaney.

“These people are already traumatised and it sends them into a bit of a spiral … It can take a while to get accustomed to the new information, so we don’t see them until we are days into that three-week period, which is short enough as it is.”

That clock has been ticking for weeks now and while some have been granted a further three-week extension, most will enter this week without any government support.

“We have been stretched past capacity navigating the pandemic,” says Leaney. “At our service, we saw at least a 300 per cent increase in requests for help and that was from people who had never needed our support.

“I think that is why it is so devastatingly cruel, the timing of it, when services and communities are already struggling to meet the needs that have emerged through Covid-19.”

The terms of the final departure visa provide holders with just three options. The first – returning to offshore detention – is not a practical option. The Morrison government has made clear it will continue to scale down offshore facilities until the number in these regional processing centres reaches zero.

While the most recent budget shows costs for operating camps on Manus Island and Nauru will balloon to $1.19 billion this financial year – following a $436 million overrun last year – the forecasts assume a decrease in costs in later years as the centres are emptied.

The remaining choices for final departure visa holders are to go home or resettle in a third country.

For many, returning to the persecution they fled is not possible. For example, as Tracey Cabrie points out, no Iranian refugees can return to their home country because the government will not accept them back. Others are in a similar position.

But in a statement to The Saturday Paper, a spokesperson for Home Affairs defended the program: “Individuals who have been found not to engage Australia’s protection obligations, and have exhausted all avenues to remain in Australia, are expected to depart.

“A final departure bridging visa allows individuals to temporarily reside in the Australian community while they finalise their arrangements to leave Australia.”

It appears that refugees who have been accepted for transfer under the United States resettlement deal, or who are awaiting assessment under that deal, have not had their provisions taken away.

Final departure arrangements also don’t apply to the 250 people brought to Australia under the now repealed medevac law: they are being held in hotels in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Instead the visa changes are focused on 1200 or so people who were transferred to Australia for medical treatment before the medevac legislation passed.

The reasons are not financial. Any budget savings from this scheme will be negligible. Where the annual cost per asylum seeker of offshore detention is about $4 million, the figure for community detention is closer to $100,000.

During the past three years financial support provided to asylum seekers onshore has reduced by $120.2 million to just $19.6 million projected this financial year.

 

In the short term, charities are racing to fill the chasm in support that has been opened by the government’s changes. Historically, state governments have provided funding to help.

“It’s really, you know, the federal government is shifting the costs on to the state government, who try and step in where there is a big hole because we really want to prevent people from falling into more destitution and homelessness,” Cabrie says.

“Before this, it was still really difficult for the refugees and asylum seekers. They’re living off not much money, they’re living with uncertainty. And with those health issues, it can cost a lot of money. And one of our concerns is, if people come off this program, they won’t have case management support. They won’t have income.”

If the Coalition succeeds in dismantling community detention, it will do so in name only. Once the support infrastructure has been removed, the housing leases terminated and the clients taken off the books, one thing will remain: the people themselves, untethered in a country whose government refused to accept them.

“We’ve got people in our service who came here as minors,” Cabrie says. “And now they are in their mid- to late 20s. This is the prime of their life and they’ve never had the chance to work or study or to find their feet.

“And they just can’t. It leads to PTSD and depression, drug and alcohol issues. It’s a deliberate strategy.”

For David Burke, from the Human Rights Law Centre, it’s as though, beyond shutting down offshore detention, the government has no plan for what to do next.

“These men, women and children deserve the chance to rebuild their lives in safety,” he says.

“How long will the Morrison government keep them in limbo? Rather than trying to wash its hands of the situation by pushing families into destitution with six-month visas, the federal government must offer a permanent solution.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 17, 2020 as "Exclusive: War on refugees moves to final phase onshore".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.