REFUGEE WEEK 2018 - Senate Adjournment Speech, Thursday 25 June 2018
I rise tonight to recognise that this is Refugee Week, a week to celebrate the contribution refugees have made and continue to make to the social and economic fabric of Australia. But it is also a week to highlight the unfair and cruel policies this government is imposing on asylum seekers living in Australia by cutting the income support that they receive.
But, before I do that, I would like to acknowledge the death of another young asylum seeker last week. His name was Fariborz Karami. He killed himself inside the Australian-run regional processing centre on Nauru. He was 26 years old. His wife and his mother are now in hospital. His young brother has been taken into the care of the centre's authorities. Fariborz was a Kurdish refugee from Iran who had been severely traumatised in the country he had fled from, and he had then been locked up on Nauru for five years by the Australian government. He had several mental health issues and had been crying out for help for years. Fariborz, though, was the third asylum seeker to take his own life in the last 12 months. He died just three weeks after the tragic loss of a young Rohingya man's life on Manus Island. In total, 12 refugees have died under tragic circumstances from injuries or illnesses sustained in Australia's offshore detention centres. I want to pass my thoughts and condolences on to the family members of those asylum seekers who have died.
The tragic loss of life of asylum seekers highlights the dire need for care and assistance for these vulnerable people to prevent further harm and tragedy. I urge the Turnbull government to provide such support, which it has a duty of care to do. This is a human tragedy. It is a tragedy that I believe is worthy of an inquiry to investigate the human rights abuses of people who have sought our protection and the ongoing unmet medical needs of those who remain in indefinite detention. It saddens me that this has happened under our watch, that we have not prevented this from happening and that these human beings weren't given the protections and opportunities to rebuild their lives that any humane country would offer them.
So this is Refugee Week. If nothing else, it's an opportunity for refugees to be listened to, to be valued and to be seen. It is a week to recognise the risk to life for those families who cross borders, fleeing persecution and seeking protection. It is a week to recognise that 1,369 people are still in detention in Australia: 225, including 22 children, are detained on Nauru, and over 500 are forsaken on Manus Island. I've heard stories of people being moved pointlessly from one detention centre to another, of families being split up and of heartless treatment in detention of all varieties, causing even more trauma to their lives. But it doesn't stop there. The situation just got a whole lot worse for those asylum seekers in our Australian community who have been waiting for five or six years for the coalition government to decide about their refugee claims.
Minister Dutton's Department of Home Affairs has started removing the last lifeline from thousands of these people by changing the eligibility rules for its Status Resolution Support Services Program, SRSS. Potentially, over 13,000 people, over 4,000 of whom are children, are living on the edge of disaster, at risk of losing the financial support they need while their claims are being processed. Because their refugee claims are undecided by government, these people find it extremely difficult to find work. Employers, unfortunately, are not lining up to give a job to someone with no Australian work experience or networks who is on a short-term bridging visa and who has never been given help to learn English. These people have one option keeping them from utter destitution. The Status Resolution Support Services Program provides an extremely basic allowance for people who would otherwise not be able to survive while their refugee claims are being considered. Their allowance gives a single person less than $35 a day and is well below the 2016 poverty line. It is 89 per cent of Newstart allowance and provides access to torture trauma counselling. But now the home affairs department has made it clear that if it decides someone is 'work ready' then they will lose their SRSS payment, even if that person can't actually get a job or has significant mental and physical health issues or is a carer of young children.
During the recent Senate estimates, a Home Affairs official admitted to me that someone who is still waiting for their refugee assessment to be completed and is on the SRSS payment cannot study full time in Australia, despite having arrived as a minor and having gone through high school and entered university with good grades. This is what has happened to Sarvenaz. Sarvenaz has been on a bridging visa and has a scholarship for full-time university. She said, 'How do people expect someone to arrive in this country and find a job when they don't have access to services, they're stressing from the trauma they've been through, they're an applicant who hasn't been processed, they don't have skills to work with and their education history isn't accepted? How do they find work?' But their SRSS payment is now being withdrawn because the government has decided that they should not be studying full time, even if they are studying English to improve their chances of getting a job; they should just get a job, even though there may be no job that they can get and even though they may have a scholarship to go to university. This just beggars belief! These are some of the most vulnerable people in Australia and they're trying to rebuild their lives. Instead, the Turnbull government wants to cut off their financial support, somehow thinking that it's going to help them. Remember, most of these people who came to Australia are genuine refugees with skills and are motivated to contribute to Australia and lead a safe life in a welcoming country, but they were detained for months, some for years, and were not allowed to work.
Nada, her husband and her daughter have been here for six years and lost their SRSS payment in February. Nada said: 'We still don't have a future for my daughter. I didn't feel safe in my country because of problems with the government. But I feel shamed that I brought her here and we spent two-and-a-half years in detention.'
Pregnant women, families with young children and survivors of torture—who are not vulnerable enough according to the new much stricter criteria—will be stripped of any form of income. This is not only cruel but so short-sighted. But, according to Minister Dutton, the blame lies with these desperate people themselves. His department points to the length of time these people have been in Australia on the SRSS payment without getting a job, but never acknowledges that the primary reason they can't get a job is that the government has delayed their refugee applications. At the very saddest and hardest part of their lives, people who have sought our protection will lose their only source of income, as meagre as that is. Then what will happen? The charities that they rely on are already overstretched. There is also clearly a callous money grab here by the government, which simply does not care about vulnerable people in our community.
In the coming months the proposed changes are likely to make thousands more vulnerable people in our communities homeless, destitute and desperate. Desperation, we know, leads to increased crime and poverty. But it does not have to be this way. We should be working on a compassionate approach to asylum seekers. We should be working on a lasting regional solution which would humanely address the plight of asylum seekers, redirecting funding to areas where it would achieve positive results—to UNHCR refugee camps, to peace negotiations, to foreign aid, to engagement with Indonesia and Malaysia to establish lasting refugee resettlement in the region and to increasing our refugee intake. That is what this Turnbull government has failed to do and is what a Labor government will do, because we recognise that Australia is a nation built on migration and we must respect and recognise refugees, who have gone on to make invaluable contributions to our society, and celebrate the rich diversity of refugees who now call Australia home.
Finally, in this refugee week, on behalf of the Senate I would like to recognise all of the dedicated men and women in our community, from all walks of life, who work to support and welcome refugees. Thank you for all of your efforts.