This article was prepared by Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA). RCOA is the national umbrella body for refugees and the organisations and individuals who support them. It has more than 200 organisational and over 900 individual members.
RCOA’s own work is centred on five key areas: policy, support for refugees, and support for its members, community education and administration. In addition, RCOA seeks funding for specific projects that directly relate to our objectives and enhance our capacity to serve the refugee community.
The SRSS Program.
The SRSS Program provides support to people seeking asylum while their visa applications are being assessed. SRSS can provide people with financial assistance (currently 89% of Newstart allowance, or as little as $35 per day), casework support, access to torture and trauma counselling and sometimes, subsidised medication. SRSS support is a vital lifeline for people seeking asylum, as many people struggle to find sustainable employment, face multiple obstacles to supporting themselves, and have years to wait until the Department of Home Affairs makes a decision on their protection applications.
Payments from the SRSS Program are made under the Public Governance, Performance and Accountability Act 2013 administered by the Department of Human Services. The Department of Home Affairs has overall responsibility for the SRSS Program, including policy settings and operational procedures.
SRSS payments are paid fortnightly in arrears and must be paid into an Australian bank account. The Department of Human Services (Human Services) administers regular payments to eligible SRSS recipients at the direction of the Department of Home Affairs as part of the SRSS Program. These payments include Living Allowance, Rental Assistance Allowance and Dependent Child Allowance. A part of Human Services’ administration involves determining how much a SRSS recipient is paid.
Eligibility for SRSS requires that the person is experiencing financial hardship. Assets or sources of funds which would likely mean that the person seeking asylum would no longer be considered to be in financial hardship and therefore no longer be eligible for SRSS payments include any kind of paid work, overseas money transfers totalling $1000 in 12 months (cumulative) and receipt of a compensation payment.
Changes made to the SRSS Program.
Since 2017, the Government drastically changed the eligibility criteria for this program, leaving many people without access to income, casework support, vital medication and mental health counselling.
In mid-2018, the Department of Home Affairs changed the policy settings to restrict the eligibility criteria for the SRSS Program. These changes meant that those on the program may not have access to the full suite of support. The changes also meant that people seeking asylum who have the right to work and do not meet a high threshold of vulnerability as assessed by contracted SRSS providers would be exited from the program even if they are unemployed and do not have a form of income. The Department of Home Affairs and SRSS providers assess recipients’ vulnerability. The four elements to the vulnerability assessment are:
- Physical health barriers that are ongoing; permanent disability; or cognitive impairment
- Mental health barriers, with a current diagnosis and treatment plan in place
- Single parents with pre-school aged children (children under six); pregnant women; a primary carer for someone with a significant vulnerability; people aged 70 and over
- A major crisis for the client (family violence, house fire, flood, etc.)
The changes also impact people seeking asylum who arrived on a visa and then applied for protection, with most people either exited from the Program or unable to access it in the first place.
Government’s intended objective for the changes.
Few details are available on the Federal Government’s intended objective for the re-designed SRSS Program. There has been no publicly-articulated position on the anticipated costs or benefits of this policy amendment. There has also been no consultation with service providers, civil society, or community groups about the changes.
During Senate Estimates hearings in May 2018, Departmental representatives explained that the changes are designed to enable a ‘focus on people’s capacity for self-agency and status resolution through granting of a visa or departure from Australia.’ Further, ‘individuals on a bridging visa with work rights, and who have the capacity to work, are expected to support themselves while their immigration status is being resolved. People will be referred to jobactive (Australia’s public employment support service) if they need assistance finding work.’
However, it should be noted that finding paid employment in Australia is a significant challenge for most people seeking asylum. Due to a complex range of barriers (including being denied the right to work for many years, short term bridging visas, lack of access to government-funded English language classes, and living in limbo and uncertainty for a long time), many are not ready to enter the labour market. For those who are, the Refugee Council of Australia’s research on jobactive has identified significant limitations with the service and the support it provides to refugees and humanitarian entrants. People seeking asylum are only able to access the very limited “Stream A” of jobactive, so the obstacles that they face are further compounded.
As programs like SRSS are departmental policy and are not included in legislation, the changes are entirely up to the discretion of the Minister for Immigration; they do not require Cabinet approval or legislation. The recent SRSS changes were made through additions to the SRSS Operational Procedures Manual.
Impact of cuts made.
The Federal Government’s changes to the SRSS Program in 2017 and 2018 – revising recipients’ eligibility to receive income, casework and other critical support – has had significant individual, social and economic costs. Although SRSS may have not been adequate in and of itself, it has been the only federal support program for people seeking asylum living in the community.
The Federal Government’s cuts to asylum seeker support payments has placed almost 80% of people at risk of homelessness and destitution. In some cases, individuals and families have been waiting up to six years for the Department to decide on their protection status, creating significant anxiety and uncertainty. Nevertheless, there is enough evidence to suggest that a significant proportion (between 72-88%) of people seeking asylum will be granted protection. Forcing them into precarious situations of material poverty and destitution will compromise their chances of gaining a foothold in the labour market and settling well into Australian society in the future.
Last year, the Refugee Council conducted research to evaluate the economic impact of the changes to the SRSS Program. Our research demonstrated that almost four in five (79%) people seeking asylum in our respondents’ caseloads are at risk of homelessness or destitution if they lose SRSS support: how can someone pay their rent if they lose their support payment but do not have a job yet? Seventeen of the 24 organisations in our sample were already providing emergency relief services (including food banks) to people seeking asylum as the SRSS changes were being phased in. Across RCOA’s sample, approximately 42% of the total combined budget was allocated to providing these emergency relief services. Ten organisations were providing housing support (13% of total budget spend), while eight organisations were also providing homelessness services (8% of total budget spend) to their clients.
Shift of costs to State and Territory Government.
Due to these measures, state and territory governments have made investments in different forms of targeted support to ‘fill the gaps’ created by the Federal Government. The efforts of community organisations, charities, churches, volunteers and similar groups have also ensured that a safety net for people seeking asylum has existed until now. RCOA’s sample of 24 organisations in six states and territories (still just a fraction of the range of organisations and individuals that support this cohort) provides over $40 million in service value and volunteer support to people seeking asylum. The changes to SRSS will create even more demand on these organisations and on state governments to fill the gap.
The cuts to SRSS do not give whole-of-government cost savings. They simply shift significant costs from the Commonwealth to the states and community-based organisations. Our research estimated that as a result of the SRSS cuts, state governments will face significant additional costs in health, corrections, and homelessness services. The total cost to the states and territories is likely to be between $80 and $120 million per year.
Legal issues arising from changes to SRSS policy requiring unfunded legal assistance.
In response to the high unmet legal need, the Welfare Rights Centre (WRC) has been assisting people having issues with their SRSS payments in NSW. Initially when the project started in 2016, all the clients being referred had received letters informing them of an SRSS debt. The assistance in most of these cases involved obtaining documents under Freedom of Information to shed light on whether the debt was correctly raised and calculated, and assisting clients to draft a request for waiver of the debt where there was evidence to support a submission to the Department of Finance. In cases where there was no merit, the pro bono lawyers would assist clients to negotiate a repayment plan.
The project has expanded to assist people who have had their SRSS payment cancelled due policy changes related to overseas remittances. From November 2017, anyone making overseas transfers totaling $1000 cumulatively over a 12-month period would have their SRSS payment cancelled and would be exited from the SRSS Program. They would no be able to access support, even if they had any of the vulnerabilities set out in the eligibility criteria. Cancellation of SRSS payments has been reversed in some circumstances, for example where it has been shown that the money transfer occurred prior to November 2017.
Social Security Rights Victoria (SSRV) and additional law firms have subsequently joined the project to provide assistance to a greater number of people seeking asylum who are living in Victoria.
Some of the challenges involved in the project have included:
- the unfunded operation of the project which has meant that WRC and SSRV have needed to find resources to coordinate the pro bono lawyers’ work on top of their usual heavy workload and have needed to rely on pro bono team leaders to take on the day to day supervision of the matters;
- the lack of a direct contact in the Department of Home Affairs to provide information to the pro bono lawyers on why payments have been cancelled or debts raised. Despite many requests by the project team to establish one, they are always directed to the general SRSS phone line which is used by the general public; and
- the length of time the process of requesting and obtaining a decision on debt waivers, as the decisions are not made under the social security law and therefore not subject to the same rules and time frames for decision-making and appeal.
RCOA urges the Government to immediately restore SRSS eligibility criteria to 2014 measures and to ensure that people seeking asylum have the opportunity to access basic financial assistance, casework, torture and trauma counselling, and other supports required to help resolve their immigration status.
For individuals and organisations interested in learning more or wishing to get involved to support those in need, visit www.refugeecouncil.org.au/roof-over-my-head/