The ASC’s submission to the Cost of Living inquiry

The ASC highlights the impact of the rising cost of living on people seeking safety without a safety net April 19, 2024

The ASC is pleased to submit to the Select Committee on the Cost of Living and highlight the impact of the rising cost of living on people seeking asylum, some of the most vulnerable in our community.

Under international law, everyone has the right to seek safety from persecution. But after arriving in Australia, people experience constant uncertainty due to complex systems, coupled with a lack of support and funded resources. People seeking asylum in our community face hardship with inconsistent access to work rights, study rights, income support, and Medicare. They come to Australia seeking safety and end up without a safety net.

The cost of living crisis in Australia has exacerbated the gaps between people seeking asylum and the communities they seek to become part of and contribute to, and widened the cracks in the system into which they often fall.

This has detrimental long-term impacts as people are forced to spend long periods of time without the right to support themselves, without basic financial support to buy essential items, and without access to childcare. The ASC is seeing an increasing deterioration of mental health across people we support as a result of this structural inequality and the disproportionate impacts of the rising cost of living.

If how we respond to instances of crisis and challenge show who we really are, we must use this moment to support those most vulnerable. Instead, budgets are being cut, access is becoming more difficult, rhetoric is ramping up, and charities and community groups are being forced to fill the gaps and do the work of the government, despite facing funding challenges in a difficult economy.

At the ASC, we always seek to centre the voices of those with lived experience. Our proposals to address the negative impacts of the rising cost of living on people seeking asylum are centred around these experiences while speaking to the Inquiry’s terms of reference.

Proposal 1: Provide people seeking asylum with social support by urgently refunding the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program to pre-2018 levels and expanding eligibility to ensure it is fit for purpose.

Government income support is designed to reduce the negative impacts of unemployment by enabling people to meet their costs of living and search for sustainable employment. People seeking asylum are automatically disqualified from these mainstream income support services such as Centrelink. Instead, very few are eligible for the flawed and dwindling Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program while they are awaiting their refugee status decision.

Since 2018, the Australian Government has been reducing the support it extends to people seeking asylum through SRSS, despite a sharp increase in protection visa processing times. The total costs for the SRSS program have drastically dropped from $369.7 million in the 2016-17 financial year to $13.9 million in the 2023-24 financial year.

The SRSS program has different levels of support depending on the situation of the applicant, but even the band with the most support is deliberately capped at around 89 per cent of the Newstart allowance provided by Centrelink. This means the financial assistance offered is insufficient to meet the rising cost of living and afford basic necessities.

Compounding the low level of financial assistance offered is the strict eligibility criteria which locks many people seeking asylum out of receiving SRSS at all. The number of people receiving SRSS has decreased over time. In June 2019, there were 5,482 people seeking asylum receiving SRSS. As of December 2023, that number has dropped to 1,532, which means only around 2.2 per cent of people seeking asylum receive SRSS.

Even those who have lost their job, are escaping family violence, are facing major health issues, have been severely injured at work, or are a single parent of multiple young children don’t automatically qualify to receive SRSS.

The SRSS application process is also deeply flawed, with no explanations given and applicants unable to request a formal review. This means if people seeking asylum don’t initially qualify for SRSS, they must start the process over again.

One of the Labor Party’s 2022 election platforms was ‘a fair process for asylum’, which included means-tested access to legal advice, social services including income support, healthcare, and crisis housing. There has been no movement on this promise, despite the party previously acknowledging the unfairness of the SRSS program.

A person seeking asylum supported by the ASC has been living with a disability and heavily impacted by SRSS ineligibility due to his visa stage. With a history of strokes and residual paralysis, chronic pain from disc disease, coronary heart desire, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they have been unable to access affordable accommodation suitable to their health needs. This person faces severe food insecurity without access to SRSS to afford meals and with mobility issues affecting their ability to pick up food parcels from charitable organisations.

The SRSS program is failing the vulnerable people it was originally designed to support. The gradual winding back of SRSS must be halted, with funding reinstated to pre-2018 levels and eligibility criteria expanded to include the thousands of people seeking asylum living in deep poverty so they are able to effectively engage in their visa process.

Proposal 2: Provide people seeking asylum with access to housing and homelessness services, including bond support.

There is a lack of affordable housing in Australia and this issue is only exacerbated by the rising cost of living, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne where the majority of people seeking asylum reside and access community support services.

This housing shortage disproportionately impacts people seeking asylum. During the refugee determination process, people are not eligible for public housing and do not have access to most transitional housing. Landlords and agents often will not consider people seeking asylum for private rentals, which can lead to exploitation.
People seeking asylum face significant barriers to securing sustainable housing, including language barriers, little to no Australian rental history, limited knowledge of the Australian housing market, and an inability to sign longer-term lease agreements due to the uncertain nature of their visa status.

The ASC has witnessed a steep increase in the number of people seeking asylum living in temporary, overcrowded accommodation, as well as many cases of people sleeping rough. The ASC’s data found the proportion of people seeking asylum who are homeless more than doubled between H1 and H2 2023, while the proportion of those at risk also increased. The experience of homelessness is detrimental to the welfare and mental health of people seeking asylum, which in turn can impact their capacity to lodge and progress their applications for protection.
One of the people the ASC supports is a transgender woman who arrived in Australia in 2016. She currently holds a Bridging Visa E with no work rights or Medicare. She has presented at the ASC on multiple occasions either at risk of or experiencing homelessness.

Her current work status and lack of work rights means she should be eligible for SRSS, but a lack of stable housing jeopardises her engagement with the services necessary to work on the application.

Lack of housing goes far further than a roof over someone’s head. It offers safety, security, and the ability to access other vital services. People seeking asylum must have access to emergency housing accommodation because the lens shouldn’t be visa status, but rather the degree of need.

Proposal 3: Ensure that all people seeking asylum remain on a visa with valid work rights while they are in our community, including while they are seeking review of their decision through the appeals process. 

Many people seeking asylum in Australia are ready to work but are denied the ability to have agency, support themselves, and rebuild their lives due to the temporary nature of bridging visas. Among the people seeking asylum who access services at the ASC, around 13 per cent are estimated to not have current work rights. As of November 2023, other than those who arrived by air, there are 5,826 people nationally on Bridging Visa E without work rights.

Bridging visas may expire while a person is waiting for a grant of another bridging visa. People in the community who are waiting for the grant of a further bridging visa do not have work or study rights because they do not hold a valid visa. This often happens because of delays in renewing a visa and in some cases, their visas can only be renewed after the Minister personally intervenes to grant a further visa.

Combined with the barriers to accessing income support through mainstream social support services or SRSS as outlined above, the lack of consistent work rights create dire circumstances for people seeking asylum and in many cases pushes them into exploitative work.

A family supported by the ASC that arrived by sea in 2009 have been severely impacted by the broken and fluctuating access to work rights. While the mother and child have since been granted a protection visa, the father has not and is ineligible for work rights, Medicare support, or any income support due to his visa status and current legal stage.

With no work rights, the family has accessed and exhausted government services for support in accommodation and food, and are currently homeless, living in an unregistered car. The father’s mental health is rapidly declining with complex trauma, PTSD, depression, anxiety, and social withdrawal.

The right to work provides not only the means by which to support yourself and your family, but dignity and purpose to rebuild your lives for those who have fled unimaginable circumstances. We cannot punish people for a system which takes too long and traps them on bridging visas with no right to work.

Proposal 4: Grant access to childcare subsidies to people seeking asylum, and allow them to work to support themselves and contribute fully to their families and communities.

While their cases are being assessed, people seeking asylum are structurally excluded from accessing childcare subsidies that Australian families depend on to afford early childhood education, and ensure parents can balance work and childcare.

According to data released by the Productivity Commission in February 2024, out-of-pocket childcare costs have risen substantially for families throughout Australia. The median cost for preschool per child has increased from $2.05 an hour in 2021 to an average of $2.88 in 2022, and $3.24 in major cities where most people seeking asylum reside and access support services. Prices have also surged for day care with the median weekly cost for 50 hours at a childcare centre growing from $445 in 2014 to $610 in 2023.

Despite greater access to more affordable childcare being a cornerstone of Labor’s 2022 election mandate, there has been no movement for those falling through the system’s cracks. People seeking asylum are denied access to this critical support, which limits the ability for both parents to work.

On top of this, children of people seeking asylum have additional development needs due to the trauma they and their parents have experienced. Enrolled childcare gives young children access to vital socialisation, stimulation, and early learning opportunities. It is essential to helping address the development issues faced by the children of people seeking asylum, however without subsidies, most families are unable to access this vital support.

A family supported by the ASC faced extreme financial hardship attempting to care for their 15-month-old child without access to income support or the childcare subsidy. Both parents work opposite shifts on casual zero-hour contracts while attempting to care for their child in the intervening hours. The family income is approximately $1,000 per week, their rent is $400, yet childcare which would enable them to work weekday daytime shifts would cost approximately $700 per week.
The family is in arrears on their utility bills, and rely on food and toiletries parcels every fortnight. The prospect of homelessness is never far away. Unable to properly rest and afford necessary healthcare treatments, their welfare has been severely impacted.

Proposal 5: Provide people seeking asylum with ongoing Medicare access and adequate healthcare support.

People seeking asylum have uncertain and fluctuating visa status, which can reduce their eligibility for Medicare and place them at high risk of poor health outcomes. Those who have faced persecution experience different health issues compared to the general population.

These can include complex psychological and adjustment disorders, such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD, physical consequences of torture and trauma, increased exposure to infectious diseases, poor nutrition due to social and economic factors, and undetected or inadequately managed chronic diseases, among many others.

While most people with a bridging visa are entitled to Medicare, this access is interrupted as people must apply for a new Medicare card every time they get a new visa. The average wait time for Medicare approval across people supported by the ASC is currently 3-6 months, which is significantly high for a cohort of people forced to re-apply for access regularly when their visas lapse.

These gaps in Medicare access can have a profound impact on people seeking asylum if they have an unforeseen medical issue, emergency, or are on a treatment plan and can only continue with the treatment if they pay.

When a man in his 40s arrived in Australia in 2010, he was granted a bridging visa with Medicare rights. However, when this visa expired, his Medicare lapsed and he is now no longer eligible or able to apply.

The man required a total hip replacement, which was possible under Medicare, but suffers from other chronic health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, rheumatoid arthritis, and mental health issues.

Following the lapse of Medicare, the man has been left with no access to a local physiotherapy service to recover from their recent hip replacement. On top of this, he is unable to access or afford a mental healthcare plan, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme for medication, bulk-billed post-surgery MRIs, or specialist follow-up appointments, and has limited access to legal services related to visa re-applications that could help him reinstate his access to Medicare.

People seeking asylum arrive in Australia with complex mental and physical conditions caused by the circumstances they have faced in their home country, on their journeys to Australia, and in seeking asylum. A lack of access to medicare, or fluctuating access caused by bureaucracy issues, have outsized impacts on people seeking asylum, and must be rectified.

The Government must provide ongoing access to Medicare to people seeking asylum for the duration of their protection visa application process, as well as granting those with a disability access to NDIS payments.

The ASC’s submission to the inquiry into Labor’s draconian deportation bill Photos from the ASC’s 2024 community Iftar dinner