The marginalisation of asylum seekers

Source: The Age Australia – May 30, 2013 |

Imagine, if you can, packing yourself and your family into the stinking, humid hull of a wooden fishing boat, clinging on as it creaks in big ocean swells and never knowing if the people who meet you at the end of this fearsome journey will allow you to live among them. Is it too much to hope for a secure life, free of war, torture, persecution and intolerance, and in a land where you can not only speak your mind but be respected as an equal member of the community?
This is the sort of journey taken by more than 19,760 people who have arrived in Australia since August 13, 2012. Most have come seeking refuge, not economic advantage – and yet the government’s policies treat asylum seekers as though they are less deserving than the rest of us.
Putting aside the fact that not one of the 19,760 applications for asylum has even begun to be processed, some 7256 people who are on bridging visas in the community are in a peculiar kind of limbo. They have not done anything wrong; they are merely waiting for someone to start processing their refugee applications. But under the Gillard government’s ”no advantage” policy, all asylum seekers who arrived after August 13 are banned from working in any job, even the most menial.
It is not a five-year or three-year ban. It is an unspecified, indefinite ban. And while the 7256 may be living in shared accommodation in the community, they barely have the means to support themselves. They survive on Immigration Department handouts of just $217 a week, less than the Newstart allowance. A Coalition government would do no better: it would force all asylum seekers to work in return for the measly stipend, or risk being placed in detention.
None of this is good enough. Australia’s charities have stepped in to pick up where the government has left off, yet they are now so stretched that they have been forced to turn away some people. All the while, there is evidence of deplorable living conditions for some asylum seekers. The Sunday Age recently drew attention to an Iranian woman, seven months pregnant, who has been sleeping for months on a carpeted concrete floor in Dandenong South. And non-profit organisation Homeground told The Age on Wednesday of husband and wife asylum seekers who lived in a backyard garage and were allowed to use the house toilet only at certain times.
It is lamentable that this wealthy and sophisticated nation deliberately imposes disadvantage on one group of desperate people. Banning asylum seekers from working is irrational in economic terms. It represents a hopelessly misguided response to the more extreme voices of prejudice that prosecute the bogus claim refugees are ”taking” jobs from Australians. Not allowing people to work, when they are capable and willing, is a persecution in itself. Work brings people out of isolation, it fosters better language skills and broadens social networks. It gives people dignity.
The responsibility for looking after asylum seekers rests on the government, which acts on behalf of us all. It must do much better.

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