Ex­clu­sive: War on refugees moves to fi­nal phase on­shore

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

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - Rick Mor­ton is The Satur­day Pa­per’s se­nior re­porter.

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 en­trylevel 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.”

AAP Im­age / Dave Hunt

Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton and Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son dur­ing a press con­fer­ence at Bren­dale, north of Bris­bane, on Tues­day.

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