Asylum seeking in the Archdiocese of Perth

The dirt streets and transient nature of a refugee camp is a far cry from the suburban comfort of the Australian lifestyle. Photo: Supplied.

Moving to a new country, with a new culture, a new identity and a different language is an incredibly challenging experience – it should come as no surprise that some refugees and asylum seekers, after arriving in Australia, fail to integrate successfully with Government services and end up sleeping rough on the streets.

According to Poverty, Homelessness and Migrants in Western Australia 2019, a joint initiative by the Archdiocese of Perth and Notre Dame University Australia, many entrants on permanent humanitarian visas are younger relative to migrants on other visas and are more likely to be in higher need of economic assistance.

The report states that the number of visas for vulnerable women and children have been increasing as well, the majority of whom are in a relatively young cohort: from childhood through to young adults.

Director of West Australian Catholic Migrant & Refugee Office (WACMRO), Deacon Greg Lowe, is the leading expert in the Archdiocese of Perth on the plight facing migrants and refugees on their arrival in Australia and in a recent interview with The Record, discussed in greater detail the current situation in Perth.

“In WA, homelessness in refugees, in terms of numbers, is not a big issue,” Deacon Greg explained.

“Homelessness doesn’t emerge at the beginning; they are well settled. The Australian government is very good at settling new arrivals, which means that on arrival they are provided with accommodation and a case worker who then links them in with the appropriate support services – education, health, welfare.”

He elaborated that Australia’s migrant population generally avoid homelessness and its associated socio-economic conditions; they have migrated here by choice, it’s been planned and they have a special skilled migrant or family reunion visa.

“The intention is always to go back to their country once their work experience, contract or visa has expired.”

“The refugee group are different because they may not have chosen to come to Australia but they have been placed in this country. However, the first thing to note is that refugees are permanent resident visa holders, they have a visa and are permanent residents and because of this, they are entitled to access the welfare supports – just like others,” he said.

“The third class of migrant is someone who has arrived in Australia by plane or occasionally by boat, and under the United Nations Refugee Convention, they then seek asylum. When they arrive, usually at the airport but not always though, they say to the immigration official, “I want asylum.”

Australia is signatory to the UN Geneva Convention, 1959, and under the codes of the convention is required to assist and support the person seeking asylum while their request for refugee status is being determined.

“The main issue is that they’re not entitled under the law, under national civil law, to access the supports that a permanent resident visa holding person would be. At the moment they are granted with a bridging visa, sometimes with work rights and sometimes without work rights. And that’s a very big difference,” Dcn Lowe said.

”At the moment we have 300 Asylum seekers.”

Celebrating multi-cultural diversity is central to our Identity both as Australians and as Catholics. Photo: Supplied.

Celebrating multi-cultural diversity is central to our Identity both as Australians and as Catholics. Photo: Supplied.

The way that people become homeless in Australia is fairly similar, no matter their country of origin, but once they are homeless, then there is a raft of additional barriers for refugees to overcome:

  • Language – if their English language skills are not as good as they could be.
  • Cultural norms – understanding, accepting and behaving according to cultural norms.
  • Saving Face – they want to sort it out themselves, they feel if they go to Centrelink or another Government support agency initially that it is shaming.
  • Form filling – often they try to apply or reapply for a visa and it is not done properly.

“Now those without work rights do get a payment under Australia’s international requirements,” Dcn Lowe explained.

“This is called a Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) payment. And the name there really explains what SRSS is, as they are waiting for their status to be resolved they are given a support services payment and they are usually found some kind of group accommodation.”

He highlighted that this is the period of time when asylum seekers can have a profoundly negative experience, where the main contributing factor is mental health – because of the elongated time it is taking to resolve the status of the person seeking asylum.

“It’s very hard for someone who is not in that situation to understand what happens to your brain and your thinking, but as readers we can understand because uncertainty in everyday life does breed a certain amount of anxiety. But prolonged uncertainty sets up a spiral of depression. It’s a two-year process now,” Dcn Lowe said.

“Mental health issues will impact on decision making, result in an inability to do work properly if they are working, meaning that they might not get access to the money they need. If there are outbursts, violent outbursts, then they might be asked to leave the accommodation.”

The final spectrum of asylum seeker is the post SRSS person, individuals who are extremely vulnerable because they have no permanent residency and are on a bridging visa.

“Even though we have a lot of vulnerable people in our community the safety net, the one thing they can lean on, is the fact that they are residents or citizens of Australia. Which means by law they have access to the supports that they need.

“But the vulnerable of the vulnerable are the ones who don’t have that,” he explained.

“So now you have in effect a human being without access to, theoretically, access to supports in the law of the country they’re now in, so now they’re potentially open to exploitation.”

The post SRSS client is someone who has been reassessed against the SRSS criteria and found to be ineligible.

“We have 30 SRSS clients are now post SRSS and out of those 30, about 40 percent have families. The client has the visa, but on the visa they attach their dependents so you’re looking at about 170 people within this category,” Dcn Lowe said.

“This is where parishes could potentially help, you can’t come to the aid of a vulnerable refugee or asylum seeker without also promoting their wellbeing in some way, because they are unaware of their rights usually so they need a third party to empower them, so that they become aware of their rights, or to advocate on their behalf.”

The important role that advocacy plays in helping both the individual and the asylum seeker contingent as a whole cannot be understated and it is a way for all Catholics to be involved in supporting the disadvantaged.

“Advocacy is a way of presenting another way of thinking about a situation that has been forgotten about or dismissed. However, it always asks the authority that you are lobbying to reconsider their decisions in the light of justice,” Dcn Lowe concluded.

By Eric Martin

This article first appeared in The Record and is republished with permission.

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