‘I didn’t know how to survive’: the refugees and asylum seekers hit by Coalition cuts | Australia news

Sarvenaz, a refugee on a five-year protection visa, lost her special benefits payment on orientation day for her first semester at university.

“They actually didn’t tell me, they just cut it off without explanation,” Sarvenaz says. “I went to Centrelink to check what’s going on and they said because you were studying we have to automatically stop your payment from the beginning of the semester.

“I didn’t know how to survive, how to support my family.”

Sarvenaz is among the thousands of refugees and asylum seekers to lose income and rental support over coming months under federal government cuts labelled “cruel” and unprincipled by charity groups.

They have all been told to get jobs but many have poor English and serious health issues, and overseas qualifications are not recognised here.

The cuts affect two groups receiving two different payments but the outcome is largely the same.

Last year the government announced an end to Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) for several thousand asylum seekers on bridging visas, to come into effect in 2018. SRSS provides payment roughly equivalent to 89% of Newstart – about $35 a day – as well as case management support and access to trauma and torture counselling services.

Separately, a group of about 190 refugees from among the hundreds transferred here for medical care from Manus Island and Nauru have been suddenly moved onto a six-month bridging visa, stripped of income support and evicted from community detention housing. They must support themselves, or go back, the department said.

Sarvenaz and her family were on rolling bridging visas of various lengths for more than four years. They struggled to find work, but she and her sister volunteered with the Red Cross and Salvation Army, and enrolled at university.

Her scholarship requires full-time attendance but she cannot access Austudy. After the SRSS announcement she was unable to get a job until the university found one for her on campus.

“How do people expect someone to arrive to this country – who doesn’t have access to the services, who is stressing from the trauma they have been through and is an applicant who hasn’t been processed, and doesn’t have skills to work with and whose education history isn’t accepted – [to] find work?” Sarvenaz says.

Nada and her husband, who spent more than two years in detention with their young daughter and lost SRSS in February, are relying on charity after unsuccessful job searches.

“I feel for [employers],” she says. “They don’t want to train you, put you in a job and then after a month you say you can’t work.

“That is fair enough – I don’t know if I can work tomorrow or not. Immigration is changing the rules every day.”

The family have been on bridging visas for more than six years and are yet to have an interview about their asylum application, Nada says. They had filed their documents long before government set a deadline for all onshore asylum applications of 1 October last year in the hope it would speed up the backlog of tens of thousands of claims.

“We still don’t have a future for my daughter,” she says. “I didn’t feel safe in my country because of problems with the government. But I feel shame that I brought her here and we spent two-and-a-half years in detention.”

Some of the Manus and Nauru transferees – collectively known as the Let Them Stay group – have long wanted the right to work, but many others who were brought to Australia for acute medical or mental health problems, including elderly people, have also been told to support themselves.

“Our sense is that everyone is vulnerable, but at the moment the more acute presentations are the Let Them Stay cohort,” says Dr Tram Nguyen, medical director of specialist mental health services at Melbourne’s Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub.

“We’re seeing a lot more people just walking into our service in a heightened state of distress, at times thinking that suicide is a way out of the situation. So we’re crisis managing.”

A protest in support of the Let Them Stay group, many of whom have have long wanted the right to work in Australia.

A protest in support of the Let Them Stay group, many of whom have have long wanted the right to work in Australia. Photograph: Dan Peled/AAP

Nguyen says Cabrini’s staff – pro bono GPs and psychiatric specialists – are already assisting desperate clients and bracing for the thousands to come.

Nguyen estimates there are about 5,000 people in Melbourne alone on SRSS, plus a large portion of the Let Them Stay group.

The waiting list for specialist mental health services has increased from weeks to months and Nguyen expects an increase in asylum seekers who are “really acutely distressed and despairing” presenting to hospital emergency departments for mental health help.

“If this is cut for people, what we’re anticipating are things like a lack of food security, families who could be homeless and destitute,” she says.

“We are expecting an increase in depression, self-harm and suicidality, but also people who are just unable to afford their healthcare. We’ll try and pick up as much as possible but we think we’ll be overwhelmed by referrals.”

The SRSS was underpinned by department-set principles including delivery in a “nationally consistent, transparent, accountable, flexible, efficient and integrated manner”, consideration of duties of care and to treat people lawfully and with respect.

It also aimed to assist people to “progressively increase self-agency”.

Natalia is a single mother with two children in school and has been told that from this month she will lose the $1,000 a fortnight that supports them.

She has a master’s degree that is unrecognised in Australia and has been knocked back from job applications over her language skills, lack of a long-term visa and because her health issues do not permit long shifts of standing up or heavy lifting.

“If the government can help us by giving us a good visa, or the opportunity to go to school or uni, I can have a qualification, we can find a job easy,” Natalia says. “Then we don’t need the SRSS money but after six years we are still on the bridging visa. The government doesn’t want to make a good decision for our life.”

Ursula, a teacher in her home country, wants people to know that lots of people in Australia have been kind and helpful, “but we need the government to think about us. It’s a long time we’ve stayed here without anything, without job, without study, without family.”

How the department chose who to target – particularly among the Let Them Stay group – appears arbitrary.

The departments of social services and home affairs declined to answer questions about the number of people affected and how they were chosen to lose support. Social services referred questions to home affairs, which referred questions to the minister, Peter Dutton. Dutton’s office did not respond to multiple emails and phone calls.

Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton. Double exposure.

Home affairs minister Peter Dutton did not respond to questions about how the asylum seekers and refugees who had payments withdrawn were chosen. Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

“The way the policy is structured is almost that the lack of vulnerability has been seen as equivalent to job readiness,” Nguyen says. “They’ve had limited access to education resources, haven’t had work rights … or a work history in Australia. They’re competing with the rest of the Australian people wanting to enter the workforce.”

The SRSS has had success stories.

Three weeks ago Hamad was granted a five-year visa, after six years rolling from one short-term bridging visa to another. He now works in two jobs, one running cooking classes at Hamad’s Persian Kitchen in Northcote, the other as an operations coordinator at the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre kitchen. Both jobs came through volunteering that he was able to do while on the SRSS – because no one would hire him.

“It wasn’t possible without the SRSS payment,” he says. “It wasn’t much but it can pay your bills and rent and buy a little food for your family.”

Hamad says he spent 11 years as a chef in Iran, and had his own restaurant, but when he arrived in Australia he had no English, no references and no recognised qualifications.

Echoing the problems of Nada and Sarvenaz, he looked for work, but without recognised skills, strong English, or permanency beyond the six months of his bridging visa, was unsuccessful.

Hamad says he sees people coming into the centre most days who are under extreme stress over their asylum claims, visa issues, unemployment, and now cuts to their support.

It is a lot to deal with and he says it can be compounded by a sense of shame at needing the services in the first place.

“I had that – I wasn’t good for two years, three years. But there wasn’t any other way,” he says. “After I found my job, I cut the SRSS and I felt very well. But before that I didn’t have any way to pay my rent.”

Hamad has a suggestion.

“I was thinking instead of cutting the SRSS, [the government should] give people job opportunities. After that if people refuse, then cut the SRSS, but they have to find out the reason.

“Maybe some are sick, they have something like a knee problem and can’t stand all day … That’s a good reason to not work.”

  • Some names have been changed.