Refugees who are ineligible for other welfare support and in financial hardship have had their Special Benefit payments cut off, due to a technical glitch that stems from a disconnect between government departments. By Denham Sadler.

Refugees cut off from support

A Sydney rally in support of refugees and asylum seekers, earlier this month.
A Sydney rally in support of refugees and asylum seekers, earlier this month.
Credit: AAP Image / Steven Saphore

A glitch in government technology has led to refugees having their “last resort” welfare payments cut off abruptly, with many not discovering this had happened until they were trying to buy medications or attend important medical appointments.

Some refugees in Australia on the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV), a temporary visa for those seeking asylum in Australia, have been cut off from receiving the Special Benefit payment from Centrelink despite being eligible for this payment, and needing it to pay for basic necessities.

According to community groups, the federal government is aware of the issue and has moved to manually fix some cases but is yet to address the wider technical problem that has led to the errors. 

This glitch has seen refugees with serious mental illnesses unable to afford their medication. In another case, a pregnant refugee was unable to access Medicare to pay for prenatal care.

“It meant our clients had been booted off Medicare, and booted off special benefits, and it took a lot of fluffing around to get them back on,” says Anna Copeland, director of the Southern Communities Advocacy Legal and Education Service in Perth. “I’ve got clients who are very, very vulnerable, some who have serious mental illness and are on medications that they can’t afford without Medicare.”

Catherine Eagle, the principal solicitor at the Welfare Rights and Advocacy Service, has also worked with clients affected by the issue and said many found out about it only when they didn’t receive their fortnightly payment or could not access Medicare at an appointment.

“I’ve heard of clients being turned away and being unable to get a medical service, or not having the money to pay for it,” Eagle says. “Because these processes are bureaucratic, it’s not like you can fix it yourself quickly, and if you need a medical or health service, it could take a while.

“If that’s your only income and you’re using that to pay rent and bills, even if you end up getting the payment restored, you might end up in arrears.”

The issue seems to stem from a disconnect between the Department of Home Affairs, responsible for administering the SHEV, and Services Australia, which controls the special benefit payment. 

The SHEV is for asylum seekers who arrived in Australia without a valid visa, typically by boat, and have been found to be owed protection obligations by the federal government.

The visa runs for five years and the holder must apply for an extension before this period comes to an end.

The special benefit payment is for those not eligible for other welfare support and who are in financial hardship. To qualify, an applicant must have less than $5000 in savings.

This payment offers a “safety net” for refugees in Australia, Asher Hirsch, a senior policy officer at the Refugee Council of Australia, says.

“For people who are not able to work and are not eligible for any other income support from Centrelink, it’s a vital lifeline,” Hirsch says.

Those on a SHEV have to apply for extensions to the temporary visa, and this can typically take several months. If someone has made a valid application for this extension, they can legally remain in the country while it is processed, meaning they are still eligible for the welfare payments.

But the Services Australia system has not been recognising people waiting for a visa extension as being eligible for the special benefit payment, and has been cutting off these payments, the chief executive of Economic Justice Australia, Leanne Ho, says.

“All Services Australia knows is that the visa expired back in February, so they cut off their social security payment,” Ho tells The Saturday Paper.

“The processing time in government has blown out, and the consequence for such a vulnerable cohort is they have no payment whatsoever. It’s plunging people into deep poverty and it’s also extremely traumatising because of the vulnerability of that cohort.

“And it’s actually illegal to not pay these people – they’re entitled to a payment.”

The special benefit payment is one of “last resort”, Ho says.

“There’s an immediate impact where they just don’t have the resources or money to eat,” she says. “We’re hearing from refugee organisations that people are regularly eating just one meal a day, and they’re not getting medication. It’s really the basics they just can’t pay for.

“Special benefits is a payment of absolute last resort. They have no other access to income support or other forms of support.”

Lawyers have had success in resolving this issue for individual clients, but there are concerns that countless others have been affected but have not sought assistance.

The community legal sector has been working with the relevant departments for several months, but there has not been a substantial improvement made, Ho says.

“They’ve proposed some great ideas, but they haven’t actually followed through with them yet,” she says.

“They have identified that there’s no outstanding people who are waiting for a visa to be processed in order to get the special benefit payment – they’ve manually gone and done that check.

“But in order to get back onto a payment, they have to completely reapply for the payment again. We’ve asked them to do an audit of everyone who was cancelled so they can individually approach them and help them to make a fresh claim.”

Like the robo-debt scandal, it’s another example of technology and automation done poorly to the detriment of the most vulnerable people in the community, Ho says.

“It’s really the tail wagging the dog,” she says. “The system was set up without taking this particular hole into account, and to change it requires significant technical adjustments to the current assessment process. If you are going to have these automated systems then there have to be some safeguards, and that takes resourcing.

“If this kind of thing is going to happen, then there should be some manual options to then identify who is impacted and make sure they get back onto the payment fairly quickly.”

A spokesperson from the Department of Social Services told The Saturday Paper that the department was “working with the Department of Home Affairs and Services Australia to look into the concerns raised”.

The issue is compounded by federal Labor’s election promise to abolish the SHEV and move eligible refugees onto permanent visas. Since May, there has been little progress on this issue.

“There hasn’t been any guidance and that’s quite confusing,” Hirsch says. “People are still being invited for interviews and assessed for subsequent temporary visas. It doesn’t make sense and it’s a waste of the department’s time and the applicant’s time.

“People on a SHEV are going through enormous anxiety at the moment while they wait in continued limbo for an announcement from the minister about how their visas will be transferred. Many in the community had hoped it would be done much quicker, and the lack of a formal announcement is causing a lot of anxiety.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 24, 2022 as "Refugee payments cut".

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