Planned destitution of people seeking asylum: An “act of grace”?

By Eve Lester
ThitareeSarmkasat
ThitareeSarmkasat

As we sip our morning coffee on the way to work, mobile in hand, scrolling through the news, it is sobering to realise that at the same time as the Commonwealth Remuneration Tribunal has authorised an increase to the travel allowance that our politicians receive during Canberra sitting weeks, a crushing and completely avoidable humanitarian crisis of the government’s own making is looming in our suburbs.

With a new round of cuts slated to take effect as early as this week, a growing number – potentially thousands – of women, children and men seeking asylum in Australia are at risk of experiencing destitution and homelessness (if they aren’t already) because of a longstanding but constantly changing government policy of “planned destitution”. The policy’s effects are to produce avoidable social and economic exclusion, denying extremely vulnerable people, even children, access to the basic necessities of life. Its worst effects risk starving people out of Australia and forcing them to return to the very persecution from which they have fled.

What is the policy? How does it work? Who does it affect? And what can we do about it?

People seeking asylum have not been eligible for any form of social security since 1991, following a change to the Social Security Act made by the then Labor government. Created in its place was a parallel policy-based scheme providing such people with limited assistance and health care, subject to strict eligibility criteria. Successive governments have maintained this policy-based approach, now called Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS), comprising six “bands” of assistance.

SRSS payments are administered by Centrelink and support services are provided by other organisations subcontracted by the Department of Home Affairs (DHA), however, decisions on eligibility remain exclusively and tightly controlled by the DHA. And for reasons that remain a mystery – not even the most senior public servants seem to know why – assistance is calculated at a rate of 89 per cent of the Newstart Allowance. This means that those eligible for support are positioned well below the poverty line.

poverty line

Melbourne Institute: Applied Economic and Social Research. ‘Poverty Lines: Australia‘ March Quarter 2018.

So, how does this policy-based scheme work?

In short, the scheme is designed to exclude the possibility of review. Despite its magnitude – 13,299 people were on SRSS as at 28 February 2018 – no legislation or regulations govern its administration. The law deems an SRSS payment to be discretionary, with the clear intention that decisions refusing SRSS payments cannot be independently reviewed. Described as an “act of grace payment”, an SRSS payment is thus framed as one made without obligation – a gesture of Australia’s generosity, indeed a “special gift”. This description of basic social assistance as a “special gift” conceals the lack of accountability embodied in a decision to refuse a payment, and ignores its human effects.

In contrast, if an Australian citizen or permanent resident applies for social security, her eligibility does not depend on an “act of grace”. If her application is refused, she has appeal rights. Reasons must be given and the decision can be reviewed by the Social Security Appeals Tribunal and then, in some cases, by the courts.

Guidance on implementation of the SRSS policy is provided in a complex three hundred-page manual. Giving the impression that the policy is considered and measured, even balanced, the SRSS program claims to be underpinned by principles of consistency, transparency, accountability, flexibility, and efficiency. Falling short of committing to “apply” or “implement” international obligations owed to people seeking asylum, it promises merely to “consider” them. However, belying its claimed principle of transparency, this manual is not readily available. It must be obtained under FOI laws, and by the time it is released parts of it will have been redacted, and the remainder will likely be out of date. So, for example, in January 2018, the April 2017 version of the manual was released under FOI. There have been multiple changes to the policy since that time, many of which are neither clear nor publicly available.

The effects of this policy are confronting. Consider Fatima*, a young mother of two. Fatima and her husband are “plane people” not “boat people”. They sought asylum shortly after arriving in Australia and before the visa they entered on expired. They were granted permission to work and, for a time, Fatima and her husband were self-employed, working hard for a modest income. Since arriving in Australia, they have had two children. Fortunately, the children could be with Fatima when she was working, as she could not put them in child care and had no family support. Although the couple’s application for refugee status was rejected initially, it was reviewed by the Federal Circuit Court in 2016 and found to be legally flawed. Her case is now back at the Administrative Appeals Tribunal as she and her children continue to live life in limbo.

Fatima has had to face difficult decisions at every step of her journey. The decision to leave her home country and seek protection in Australia meant leaving her family behind, including her mother who was in poor health. After arriving in Australia, Fatima learned that her mother needed surgery she could not afford. So, Fatima did what most of us would do in the same circumstances and made an emergency transfer of money to her — as much as she could manage.

That was in 2014, when she and her husband were working. Fatima’s circumstances have changed dramatically since that time. She has survived domestic violence and her marriage has now ended. With that, so has any financial support for her and her children.

Now a single mother caring for the two young children, Fatima has searched fruitlessly for work. Finding work is hard enough at the best of times, but on a short-term bridging visa with two kids in tow it is even harder. She is still looking. And, like other parents seeking asylum, she is not eligible for subsidised child care.

Eligibility criteria had been changed – without notice – to exclude people who had made transfers of money overseas exceeding $1,000 in a 12-month period.

People like Fatima are not eligible for any form of social security, which would give her a healthcare card or other related concessions and benefits that help alleviate poverty. In mid 2017, Fatima was referred to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) for emergency assistance. She had no income or savings and could not pay her rent. She and her children faced both destitution and imminent homelessness. Because of her vulnerable situation, JRS provided emergency support and financial assistance to tide her over while she applied for SRSS support. JRS expected that Fatima’s situation meant she would receive Band 6 SRSS income support. However, as they would discover, changes to Band 6 of the policy meant her current vulnerability was now beside the point.

Fatima’s daughterly care for her mother back in 2014 would become her undoing. Her application for SRSS was rejected by DHA. Eligibility criteria had been changed – without notice – to exclude people who had made transfers of money overseas exceeding $1,000 in a 12-month period. Though not made explicit, the rationale seems to be that such a transfer shows that a person like Fatima could support herself. Thus, the transfer — made three years prior, when Fatima was both married and working — trumped any consideration of her current vulnerabilities as a single mother and survivor of domestic violence, struggling to find work. Hoping she may nevertheless be eligible for assistance through a different strand of the SRSS program (Band 5), she made a new application. Again, Fatima’s application was rejected. The rejection letter didn’t say why.

When Fatima’s caseworker sought clarification, she got no reply. When her caseworker called DHA she was told the refusal was because of the emergency funds she had sent her mother back in 2014. After the second application was made, but before it was decided, there had been a change in policy — the change made to Band 6 now applied to Band 5 as well. Attempts to engage on the realities of Fatima’s dire situation and the irrelevance to her current circumstances of a transfer made some three years prior were stonewalled. This was policy. She wasn’t eligible. Pure and simple. Her current situation and the resulting increased vulnerability was deemed irrelevant. No review process. Nothing could be done.

…the accountability vacuum in this policy-based scheme is clear and intentional.

More recent SRSS policy changes make life even harder for Fatima. Now, because she has permission to work she is likely to be regarded as “job ready” — another reason to pronounce her ineligible for “act of grace” assistance, notwithstanding that she is a single mother, trying to care for young children and rebuild her life after experiencing persecution in her home country and domestic violence in home in Australia.

Despite the SRSS manual’s claimed principles, the accountability vacuum in this policy-based scheme is clear and intentional. This lack of accountability is why the request for clarification made by Fatima’s caseworker could be met with silence, a powerful and impenetrable institutional silence prevalent in an area of public policy and administration that has become increasingly accustomed to exercising maximum control with minimum oversight.

As she waits for her claim for refugee status to be processed, Fatima and her children remain in a situation of unnecessary and avoidable risk and vulnerability. She and her kids are entitled to be treated with respect. Their dignity should not depend on a discretionary “act of grace” that can be cruelled by decisions that cannot be independently reviewed and that pay so little regard to living realities. There is an urgent need to avert not only Fatima’s family crisis, but also the broader humanitarian crisis that looms for thousands of others like her. As our politicians look forward to $1,425 per Canberra sitting week in travel expenses alone, it is time for a rigorous and independent review of a scheme that knowingly plunges people seeking asylum into the depths of destitution.

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