Recommended Resources – The Stringer – Independent News, Investigative Journalism

Australia’s pathway to poverty – bridging visas

March 30th, 2013


The Australian Government’s hard on refugees policy is creating an underclass of people – many condemned to an itinerant lifestyle and many condemned to living on the streets.

According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship since November 25, 2011, 12,765 people have been released from the detention centres and into community on bridging visas.

There are currently 9,189 people on a bridging visa, including about 4,000 released since August 13 who are prohibited from the right to seek work.

Charity groups are having to turn away many of those who need assistance because the queues are too long – they are putting them on what may be unserviceable waiting lists.

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya - Photo, United Nations

Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya – Photo, United Nations

Many of those on bridging visas have resorted to itinerant lifestyles in search of work. One man, Tharanga (his first name only) spent three years in detention centres after a 27 day boat trip from Sri Lanka. He spent time at Christmas Island and Northern Immigration Detention (Darwin) centres before spending a year in community detention in Brisbane and subsequently secured a bridging visa.

“Darwin Detention centre was cages, not even animals should live like that. A very bad place,” said Tharanga.

Six months on a bridging visa and he has been unable to find work. Tharanga is in his late twenties and on his own.

He is going from one city to another, from one town to another.

Many of those that do find work travel to country towns where many are exploited for relatively low wages by employers who are averse to unionisation – such as in abattoirs, fruit orchards and vegetable farms. In WA’s South West The Stringer met up with some of those who finish in these type of work environments. They are relieved to get the work, even if they are being exploited, from unethical employers who in turn capitalise on the desperation of the refugee worker. They may exploit the language barriers, their lack of public voice, their restricted rights and therefore they bank on the silence. Silences which keep out Union Organisers, en masse unionisation and hose down transparency in terms of work place practices and conditions.

In search of these jobs which are now heavily competed for the itinerants move from one country town to the next – some are prepared to sleep rough to save what they can from the Government’s assistance payments  till they secure work. Others move from various lodgings, like the $20 a night Kirup Tavern or $25 a night Donnybrook Hotel where they sleep four to a room, and where The Stringer met up with a number of them to hear their stories. The Stringer met with men in their twenties and thirties who had fled Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq and Iran.

They were all looking for work, it didn’t matter how far they had to travel or what they were to be paid, as long as they could start earning an income and hence move forward with their lives. They had already travelled thousands of miles and several hundred more miles would not matter.

The itinerants The Stringer met were single men without any family in Australia.

“It is very lonely, and even in a safe country like Australia all of us I think feel alone, and this can make us worried but we have to be strong. We came this far for a safe life, now we have to make that life and help our families we left behind. We pray for those who were not able to come,” said a Hazara man, 26 years old.

“Some of my family is still in Afghanistan but most of my family is in Pakistan, in the refugee camp where my brother’s children and my sister’s children were born and all of them still live there.”

“If there are 17 or 18 million refugees, what is 100,000 people resettled by all the world’s countries? It is a raindrop. Do they expect the rest of us to wait without hope?”

“If that is all the whole world can do then people need to understand why we walk so many miles and then get on the boats. You too would do this.”

“Australia by itself can resettle 100,000 a year, and the whole world together three or four million a year and in four years end the refugee problem. There are hundreds of countries.”

Under the Government’s ‘no-advantage’ policy, single childless asylum seekers who are still waiting for ‘resolution’ on their cases are released on bridging visas but have no work rights. They receive $219 a week, six weeks accommodation and access to medical services is limited. Many of these people have been condemned to the streets. Sleeping rough where they cannot afford accommodation.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2012 Census reported a steep rise in the number of homeless from 2006 to 2011, a rise of 17 per cent – 89,000 to 106,000. Nearly two-thirds of the homeless people on Census night were under the age of 35. The biggest increase was in the 25 to 34 year-old age group. About three quarters of the increase in homelessness was accounted for by “people born overseas.”

Eira Clapton, from the Coalition for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees (CARAD) said her organisation was having to turn people away – people looking for assistance.

“We are an agency of last resort, people only come to us if there is no one else to help them,” said Ms Clapton.

“Now we are having to put people on a waiting list, so we are looking at condemning those people to live on the street.”

Rosemary Hudson Miller, from the Uniting Church WA, said there had been a demand on emergency relief and the handing out of food vouchers was on the rise.

St Bartholomew’s House CEO Andrew Hogan said that many families are forced to share housing, living in “over-crowded dwellings to cobble a life together.”

He said that “they are doing it really tough.”

In late November of last year then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen defended the tough bridging visa restrictions. But his party colleague Senator Doug Cameron argued that the restrictions would create “an underclass – poverty.”

Refugee rights advocates described the new arrangements as “more extreme” than John Howard’s government policies – and that the bridging visas were effectively the same as the temporary protection visas (TPVs) which once upon a time the Labor party railed against and chased down.

“There’s similarities, and there’s differences,” said Mr Bowen on November 22.

“They are a temporary visa, that is the case.”

Senator Doug Cameron has often criticised the way Asylum Seekers are treated.

“I do not want people to come here and starve,” he said on November 22.

I do not want an underclass to be created in Australia.”

“If you have a situation where people are thrown into the community, having to rely on charity, you are creating an underclass.”

“To put someone into the community and put them in poverty is an issue.”

“With the number of people that are looking to move around the world seeking refuge, you are always going to have a situation that boats will come to Australia.”

Human Rights Alliance refugee rights coordinator, Jenny Harding said that it is incomprehensible why the Government has made life difficult for those on bridging visas, and even more so for those on visas who are prohibited from working.

“It is one thing to get people out of detention centres but it is dangerous to put this amount of pressure on people, on top of all the other stressors such as the long wait for the processing of their refugee applications. Not only are this Government’s policies inducing poverty, they are piling that much negative pressure on these people that it can lead many of them to various clinical disorders and others into crime. The bridging visa policies impoverish people, mentally breaking many of them and may lead to the criminalisation of some of them. If this is what the Government wants to sell as a no-advantage policy it needs to have a rethink, an ethical rethink, because ultimately it is really a very horrific disadvantage policy. It makes no sense.”

Shayla Strapps, from the Centre for Advocacy, Support and Education for Refugees, Perth, said the growing number of Asylum Seekers on bridging visas and with various restrictions was putting enormous pressure on social support organisations already stretched.

There are 1,100 on a bridging visa in WA, from the 10,000 all up around the nation.

“Our main concern is once they arrive in Australia, they are unable to access any sort of processing.”

“It is incredibly unfair to them. The Government did not want them to have any advantage coming by boat but now what they have done is provide no way for people to make any application and no way to support themselves,” said Ms Strapps.

“It is an untenable position long-term and short-term.” She said the current Government policies are a pathway to poverty for these people – creating an underclass as Senator Cameron predicted.

Nine out of ten of them will be granted refugee status.

Every single person on a bridging visa with the right to work  that The Stringer spoke to – whether in Kirup, Donnybrook, Manjimup, Bunbury, Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne said “It is very hard to get a job on this visa.”

Tharanga has not been able to find a job despite a strong work history in hospitality and catering in Sri Lanka.

Those who get jobs where they are exploited hold on to these jobs for dear life.


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