No Advantage Equals No Humanity

By Jane Hodge and Jana Favero

By Jane Hodge and Jana Favero. This article is part of our December 2012 and January 2013 focus on Asylum Seekers.

Last year the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship Chris Bowen announced that the “no advantage” principle would extend to asylum seekers arriving by boat who are released into the community on bridging visas while they wait for their asylum claim to be processed. This is in direct response to the arrival of 7500 asylum seekers post-13 August 2012, as well as the realisation that it was impossible to accommodate this number of people on Nauru and Manus Island, which have a combined capacity of 2100. The government justifies this move under the Houston report’s recommendation  to give asylum seekers arriving by boat  an equivalent wait before resettlement as those in transit countries, while a plan is developed for processing and resettling refugees.

The “no advantage” policy is creating an underclass of people

The government faces enormous challenges in applying the “no advantage” principle to those who are not immediately sent offshore. The model they have come up with is both flawed and inhumane. It involves placing asylum seekers onto bridging visas, releasing them into the community with no right to work, study or volunteer and imposing waiting periods of up to five years for processing– even for those found to be genuine refugees. These bridging visas would allow for refugees to be shipped to either Nauru or Manus Island at any point, which worryingly echoes the limbo and uncertainty of the Howard-era temporary protection visas.

Organisations such as the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) feel as if they are in a time machine speeding back to a punitive, incomprehensible policy that was thought to be a thing of the past. The asylum seeker and refugee sector were shocked when the “no advantage” principle was recommended by the Houston Panel and implemented in a flash by the government. By providing services to thousands of asylum seekers over the past 11 years, the ASRC has seen firsthand how the lack of work rights and access to a safety net affects both asylum seekers and an already overburdened NGO sector. As the government continues to release people with minimal access to support services (at this stage, refugees would receive only $200 a week in income support) and no right to work, those in need will rely on the community sector to avoid destitution. The “no advantage” policy is creating an underclass of people.

The area of most concern is the lack of work rights

In the past 12 months, the ASRC has seen a doubling in the number of people seeking support. This is expected to increase by another 30 per cent as more people are released into the community on bridging visas. The area of most concern is the lack of work rights. Evidence from the ASRC has shown that people who are engaged in meaningful employment have better mental health outcomes. It is important to consider the practical consequences of creating welfare dependency by housing asylum seekers in the community on minimal income support for five years.

Alison Gerard, Lecturer in Justice Studies at Charles Sturt University, outlines international evidence to show that moving asylum seekers out of detention and into the community without adequate access to rights and entitlements fosters destitution. It also:

  • causes deteriorated mental and physical health amongst asylum seekers;
  • has the potential to create a supply of illegal labourers, exposing asylum seekers to exploitation and harm in workplaces; and,
  • outsources basic government services to already overstretched and under resourced charities, creating a tiered system of welfare.

For the first time in its 11 year history, the ASRC has a wait list to access their services

Alison’s findings are in line with what the ASRC are witnessing on a day to day basis. As an independent organisation that relies on the community for 95 per cent of its funding, the ASRC is struggling with the sharp increase in both numbers and the level of trauma people are presenting with. For the first time in its 11 year history, the ASRC has a wait list to access their services. This is only expected to increase with an estimated 10,000 asylum seekers to be released into the community in 2013 with minimal access to support and without the right to work.

Considering the harmful effects of the “no advantage” policy, it is difficult to fathom the rationale behind the government’s decision to pay asylum seekers minimal income for an undisclosed period of time from public funding and rely on the community sector for support rather than allowing people to work. Sophie Dutertre from the ASRC’s Employment and Training (ASSET) is concerned that  the new visas for arrivals by boat post August 2012 prohibit any type of meaningful engagement for asylum seekers in the community – no right to work, no right to study, and no right to volunteer. “As 89.6 per cent of boat arrivals over the last few years have been granted permanent protection visas, it’s difficult to see what these government-enforced measures are trying to achieve. Having asylum seekers live on welfare without any training or skill development for five years deliberately hinders their potential to be able to gain employment when they do achieve permanent residency”, says Ms Dutertre.

Benefits for the local community and economy speak for themselves

The story of Debbie is instructive. According to Ms Dutretre, after arriving in Australia, Debbie was anxious and negative about her future prospects. She was very despondent and had no self-confidence. Supported by ASSET, Debbie completed her Health Services Assistant Certificate through the Northern Melbourne Institute of TAFE and after doing her placement in a local hospital was offered a position by her employer. With access to education and the offer of work, Debbie’s life turned around;

Before I thought I had limited work options, now I know I can do Health Services Assistance. This course changed my life, before I felt there was nothing I could do. It has been very good for my self-esteem.

For the first time she felt valued and recognised as somebody who has respected skills. Her physical and mental health improved as having a remunerated job enhanced her social life and she was no longer sitting at home and worrying.

Most of ASSET’s clients are men who not only need an income to survive, but whose sense of self is intricately bound up in employment. As Ms Dutertre reports, the difference in a person who goes from being reliant on welfare to obtaining employment is transformative – going from downtrodden and despondent to a person with dignity. She also believes the benefits for the local community and economy speak for themselves – especially in areas of labour shortage in Australia such as meat works jobs, recycling factories jobs and the service industry, including aged care and health services.

There is an economic benefit that asylum seekers contribute – by being gainfully employed they spend money and pay tax – rather than having a negative economic cost. As far as Ms Dutertre is concerned, having an underclass of asylum seekers who are homeless, desperate, and depressed is not good for the Australian community. ASSET’s clients have demonstrated that when asylum seekers are employed in the community, they can make a great contribution. Asylum seekers who actively seek employment are committed workers keen to contribute their skills, resilience and ingenuity to the community.

The Hugo Report issued by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) details the Economic, Social and Civic Contributions of First and Second Generation Humanitarian Entrants. The report demonstrates the immense contribution that asylum seekers make to Australian society through setting up new businesses and filling niches in the labour market.

Asylum seekers meet many of the labour shortages in low skill, low status and low paid occupations, particularly in regional settings. This is not because asylum seekers are less skilled, as one third of humanitarian entrants have post-school qualifications, but because their skills are not always being fully utilised in the labour market. One third of recent humanitarian settlers who were employed worked as labourers – three times the rate for other recently-arrived settlersenriching the Australian economy by working in areas of labour shortage..

Other agencies also emphasise the importance of work rights for asylum seekers living in the community and called into question the ‘no advantage’ policy. For instance, the Salvation Army has called for political parties in Australia to allow all asylum seekers on bridging visas  the right to work and access to full medical support, while they await determination or final review of their protection visa applications,

Amnesty International has described any attempts to portray asylum seekers arrival as “illegal” as grossly misleading. They have also assessed conditions they found on Nauru as  “destitute”. UNHCR has said the government’s treatment directly contravenes the Refugee Convention, and the Human Rights Commission President Gillian Triggs has deemed Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers to be “inhumane”. Even crossbenchers, such as Independent Tony Windsor and Liberals Russell Broadbent and Judi Moylan, have criticised the government’s plans, claiming the debate is laced with racism.

It can only be hoped that our politicians make the right decisions in the coming months regarding the “no advantage” principle before the disastrous consequences of this “test” play out. It’s time to bring the humanity back into Australia’s Humanitarian Program.

* Debbie’s real name has been changed for privacy purposes.

Jane Hodge and Jana Favero are Campaign Managers at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.