AB­DUL KARIM HEK­MAT

Four out of five asy­lum seek­ers in Aus­tralia will be left des­ti­tute and home­less next year af­ter fur­ther planned cuts to sup­port ser­vices. Sadoul­lah Malakooti, ap­peal­ing the re­jec­tion of his refugee ap­pli­ca­tion, is among them.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page - By Ab­dul Karim Hek­mat. AB­DUL KARIM HEK­MAT was a fi­nal­ist for the 2018 Walk­ley Free­lance Jour­nal­ist of the Year.

Sadoul­lah Malakooti, a Kur­dish asy­lum seeker in Mel­bourne, has been sick for a week. He could not get out of bed and suf­fered se­vere headaches, di­ar­rhoea, fever. When I ask him if he has been to see a doc­tor, he tells me he could not be­cause he doesn’t have Medi­care and he has no money to pay the fee. It has been more than a month since he at­tempted to re­new his and his three chil­dren’s Medi­care cards af­ter they ex­pired. At the Medi­care of­fice, they couldn’t find his name in the sys­tem and told him to call the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs. When he did, he was told he’s “il­le­gal in this coun­try, he has to leave”. We speak for no more than a minute; his voice is coarse and hushed, as if he was speak­ing from un­der a blan­ket.

For the past six years, Malakooti has been liv­ing with his chil­dren in Mel­bourne on a bridg­ing visa. Ear­lier this year, I doc­u­mented his story in

The Satur­day Paper – the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs re­jected his refugee ap­pli­ca­tion and cut his welfare pay­ments a month be­fore his bridg­ing visa ex­pired, which left him and his chil­dren with­out food for many days. Fol­low­ing my re­port, there was a “big re­sponse”, The Satur­day Paper’s ed­i­tor told me; read­ers from across Aus­tralia in­un­dated the paper’s of­fice with phone calls and emails. They were out­raged. They wanted to help. I also re­ceived mes­sages in my Face­book in­box. I spent days re­spond­ing to those calls and mes­sages of kind­ness. Peo­ple of­fered Malakooti jobs, their homes to stay in, hol­i­day pack­ages for his chil­dren in New South Wales dur­ing school break, even to do his clean­ing and wash­ing.

A cou­ple, from Bendigo, Vic­to­ria, who were in their 60s, sent an email ask­ing Malakooti’s fam­ily to come and live with them in a “mag­i­cal for­est … a desert life­style”. A school and shops were nearby, they said. “We are say­ing come and live here while you get on your feet. We can feed you. No rent. You do some of the tasks to help us keep the place func­tion­ing, e.g. gath­er­ing and chop­ping wood, like the WWOOFer [farm home­s­tay] sys­tem. I will be like a nana to the girls,” they wrote. “We are both artists, used to scrap­ing a life to­gether. I know you need to be wary of mad of­fers from un­known peo­ple … We can help one fam­ily find a safe place, we are do­ing some­thing real in this trou­bled world … When you feel safe, you will be able to think of your next moves.”

Malakooti was over­whelmed by the gen­eros­ity of peo­ple that poured from ev­ery­where. “I am so touched by these of­fers of help,” he said, telling me that he “loved the Aus­tralian peo­ple”. His best friends are an Aus­tralian fam­ily with whom his chil­dren play and with whom they have cel­e­brated their birth­days over the past six years. But he felt un­com­fort­able spend­ing the first reader’s do­na­tion that came into his ac­count to buy gro­ceries for his chil­dren. “I am not used to this,” he said. “I al­ways worked when I was in my coun­try. I did not come here for char­ity.” When I told him that large or­gan­i­sa­tions such as the Red Cross and the Sal­va­tion Army run en­tirely on char­ity, he fi­nally swal­lowed his pride. “I have no op­tion. I do it for my chil­dren.”

He hoped the gov­ern­ment would change its mind. But his rent was al­ready two weeks in ar­rears. A case­worker told him he would end up liv­ing on the street. “Let me live on the street,” he said. “Then the gov­ern­ment will [be] compelled to help me.” But the case­worker told him the gov­ern­ment would not care.

So, re­luc­tantly, Malakooti went to the Asy­lum Seeker Re­source Cen­tre, to sign pa­pers and get his rent paid.

The Ed­mund Rice Cen­tre in

Syd­ney col­lected money on Malakooti’s be­half, pass­ing it on to him in fort­nightly pay­ments to buy gro­ceries, but the do­na­tions ran out a month ago. Since then, he and his fam­ily have been liv­ing on bor­rowed money. The ASRC, he said, told him they could only pay his rent un­til March next year, be­cause he does not have a visa.

For Malakooti, al­ready strug­gling with his wife’s death, the re­spon­si­bil­ity of caring for three small chil­dren with so lit­tle money weighs on him. The news about his visa plunged him deeper into de­pres­sion. He pushed him­self to care for his chil­dren, pre­par­ing them for their schools, mak­ing them break­fast, lunch and din­ner and wash­ing their clothes. “They are the rea­sons I am alive,” he told me. He was wor­ried about be­ing forced to re­turn to his coun­try and killed. Yet, in Aus­tralia, in limbo, life with­out health­care or work was “no bet­ter than death”.

He has tried to keep the news about the visa from his chil­dren, but they have no­ticed. They are quiet at home now, not laugh­ing or talk­ing as much as be­fore. They spend a lot of time in their rooms. They stopped do­ing their home­work.

His el­dest daugh­ter, Yekta, 14, has re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced se­vere strug­gles with her men­tal health and be­gan to see a psy­chol­o­gist – but that too re­quires a Medi­care card in or­der to con­tinue.

This year, the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs has cut Sta­tus Res­o­lu­tion Sup­port Ser­vices (SRSS) pay­ments to 1000 asy­lum seek­ers. It in­tends to cut off a fur­ther

8000 asy­lum seek­ers’ SRSS pay­ments next year. This will leave four out of five asy­lum seek­ers des­ti­tute and home­less, ac­cord­ing to a re­port pub­lished by the Refugee Coun­cil of Aus­tralia. “The changes rep­re­sent an un­nec­es­sary penalty for a group al­ready ren­dered vul­ner­a­ble by the im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus res­o­lu­tion process,” it reads. The cuts will “leave many peo­ple with­out ac­cess to in­come, case­work sup­port, vi­tal med­i­ca­tion and men­tal health coun­selling ”.

State gov­ern­ments and com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions will be left to fill the gap, es­ti­mated to be about $120 mil­lion a year, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

“What this re­port shows is that these fam­i­lies will only be pushed fur­ther into poverty and iso­la­tion as a re­sult of changes to SRSS,” says John van Kooy, the lead au­thor of the re­port. “Wor­ry­ingly, many of these ser­vice providers sim­ply do not have the ca­pac­ity to pro­vide the help that’s needed.”

When asked about the cuts to sup­port pay­ments by The Satur­day

Paper, the Depart­ment of Home Af­fairs re­sponded: “The SRSS is not a so­cial welfare pro­gram … It is de­signed to pro­vide sup­port for cer­tain non-cit­i­zens who are in the Aus­tralian com­mu­nity tem­po­rar­ily while their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus is be­ing de­ter­mined.”

Malakooti’s refugee ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected un­der the “fast-track” sys­tem, which was in­tro­duced by the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment in late 2014 for all asy­lum seek­ers who ar­rived by boat be­tween Au­gust 13, 2012 and Jan­uary 1, 2014. The sys­tem came into ef­fect in April 2015, and se­verely lim­its av­enues of ap­peal. Ini­tially, it was in­tended to deal with the legacy caseload of 30,000 asy­lum seek­ers who ar­rived in Aus­tralia af­ter Au­gust

2012. Five years on, 11,513 peo­ple are still wait­ing for their claims to be pro­cessed. Most, like Malakooti, are Ira­nian, fol­lowed in num­ber by Sri Lankan and state­less peo­ple. Of the 19,000 or so asy­lum seek­ers who have been granted pro­tec­tion un­der the sys­tem, 71 per cent were granted pro­tec­tion visas and the rest were re­jected.

At the re­cent fed­eral La­bor Party con­fer­ence, mem­bers voted down a pro­posal to give asy­lum seek­ers who have been re­jected un­der the Coali­tion’s fast-track sys­tem – some 6000 peo­ple – ac­cess to a full mer­its re­view. La­bor did, how­ever, vote to bring to Aus­tralia asy­lum seek­ers from Nauru and Manus Is­land in need of med­i­cal treat­ment.

They also sup­ported pro­vid­ing a so­cial safety net for asy­lum seek­ers still un­der as­sess­ment, which would in­clude “means-tested ac­cess to funded mi­gra­tion as­sis­tance, and to ap­pro­pri­ate so­cial ser­vices, in­clud­ing in­come, cri­sis hous­ing, health­care, men­tal health, com­mu­nity, ed­u­ca­tion and English” classes. La­bor com­mit­ted to a refugee in­take of 270,000 peo­ple, an in­crease of 5000 places a year for com­mu­nity-spon­sored refugee pro­grams, and to pro­vid­ing the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees with $500 mil­lion worth of fund­ing.

Sarah Dale, prin­ci­pal so­lic­i­tor for the Refugee Ad­vice and Case­work Ser­vice (RACS), told me that Hazara peo­ple have been most af­fected by the pol­icy. De­spite changes for the worse in their home coun­try of Afghanistan, “there is no re­course to have these de­ci­sions re­vis­ited”. The only way for asy­lum seek­ers to get their ap­pli­ca­tion re­assessed is an in­ter­ven­tion by the min­is­ter. Dale says that while she has seen min­is­te­rial in­ter­ven­tion on refugee ap­pli­ca­tions dur­ing her time at RACs, it ap­pears com­pas­sion is re­served for Euro­pean au pairs. I spoke to a Hazara asy­lum seeker in Syd­ney whose refugee ap­pli­ca­tion was re­jected un­der the fast­track sys­tem three years ago. He was told that his home district, Jaghori, was safe. Af­ter the Ab­bott gov­ern­ment de­ported the first Hazara, Zain­ul­lah Naseri, to Afghanistan on grounds that it was safe for him to re­turn, he was cap­tured by the Taliban on the way to Jaghori and tor­tured.

Last month, the Taliban launched a ma­jor at­tack on Jaghori. Thou­sands of Hazaras, in­clud­ing my own cousins and rel­a­tives, fled their homes, many into the freez­ing moun­tains on a brac­ing night, with­out any food or wa­ter. The

New York Times re­ported the pan­icked flight. “We fled, too, along moun­tain tracks barely vis­i­ble in the dark­ness,” re­porter Rod Nord­land wrote. That story ap­peared on Novem­ber 12, 2018. It was the largest ex­o­dus of Hazaras since the Taliban was top­pled in 2001. The district, ac­cord­ing to a UN brief­ing on Novem­ber 14, was un­der “siege-like con­di­tions with no ac­cess to health fa­cil­i­ties and lim­ited avail­abil­ity of food, fuel and medicine”. Most Hazara asy­lum seek­ers in Aus­tralia come from Jaghori. The Hazara com­mu­nity in Aus­tralia held vigil nights, protested in Can­berra and wrote let­ters to Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton and Prime Min­is­ter Scott Mor­ri­son, ask­ing them to con­demn the Taliban’s at­tack or pres­sure the Afghan gov­ern­ment to pro­tect the Hazaras. They re­ceived no re­sponses. And still, the gov­ern­ment says it’s safe to go back.

In April, Malakooti lodged his ap­peal with the Fed­eral Court, which al­lows him to stay in the coun­try un­til his court hear­ing. This will likely hap­pen some time next year. He is not op­ti­mistic about the out­come.

When I spoke to him again on Wed­nes­day af­ter­noon, though, he was feel­ing bet­ter. He said he tried some home rem­edy – le­mon and nabat, a sweet rock candy – to get bet­ter. He’d picked up his chil­dren from school and cooked them din­ner. But he wor­ries, still, about how to get food for his chil­dren. And what if they be­came sick and couldn’t see a doc­tor? Aus­tralia’s asy­lum sys­tem is puni­tive, but chil­dren, he says, “should not be pun­ished”.•

Sadoul­lah Malakooti with his daugh­ters.

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