No Advantage policy – the reality up close and uncomfortable.
By Pamela Curr
Detention Rights Advocate
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
The family arrived at the house on a cold afternoon. The electricity was not yet connected and they had no furniture, not even beds for the parents and their three children under 9 years. They had one phone number. The Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project took their call and responded, setting off across town with blankets and comfort to relieve their distress. On arrival Sister Brigid showed them how to light the gas heater to warm the cold house. She had four calls in half an hour that day. The government’s ‘no advantage’ Bridging Visa is being implemented. The family spent that first night in the dark, on the floor huddled under the blankets with the non-functioning fire alarm emitting an irritating beep and the alarm was so old and glued up that it could not be dismantled.
The answer as to how this legislated safety measure could be overlooked lies in a further implementation of ‘no advantage’. The families are responsible for getting themselves to the houses. They are expected to do this with public transport to pile their possessions- clothes mostly and a few pots and pans bought for survival into plastic bags and journey on buses and trains to an unknown destination. One family took a taxi from Maidstone to Dandenong in desperation. This left them with $30 for two weeks. Another family got lost in Werribee with a fish and chip shop owner trying to help. This policy places people at risk in that there is no one to show these new rivals the most basic safety measures such as how to light the pilot for the old gas heaters and help to get appliances started.
Agencies are contracted to provide minimal support called “light touch” to the people when they exit detention. For the first 4-6 weeks they stay in transitional accommodation like the decommissioned aged care home in the inner west where 40 families live in single rooms and share one kitchen. The rent is $210 per week and this doubles if they do not move out after 6 weeks. They are required to find a private rental in this time.
Their days are spent days searching on realestate.com with limited English skills and visiting agents to fill in applications. It is not possible for a family to survive if they pay more than $300 a week but some have had to. It is hard to convince landlords to give these new arrivals a house so they fill in applications many times before success. The Government pays the bond and first month’s rent but then immediately claws this back in instalments from the 89% equivalent to the lowest Centrelink payment. This leaves families with around $60 per week for food, transport, utilities, medicine- everything for the next 22 weeks. They have no concessions for utilities or medicine.
Most people are just learning the currency and the cost of living in Australia so it is a struggle in the early days trying to balance a budget which provide meals for two weeks. A young lawyer with his pregnant wife and child showed us the house they had found and been accepted. The windows were filthy with dirty, sticky tape covering the gaps. They felt lucky that they had something before they were forced out of the transitional housing. With his excellent English this young man is luckier than most but as we left, he said that he was going to a local mission where he had heard he might be given some food vouchers. The situation these families are in, makes a mockery of claims that they have come for economic migration.
Some families get to move out with their bedding from the transitional housing but not everyone is so lucky. The contractors are now providing beds, mattresses and a fridge but again not everyone gets these basic starters and some are waiting for weeks.
RUBBISH NOT REMOVED FROM PREVIOUS TENANTS
It is hard for most Australians with our houses full of “stuff” to understand what it is to have no beds, no cooking pots, plates, cups, blankets, baby things, toys, TV, couch- nothing. The government has decreed that these people must get less than anyone else in the community. The “no advantage” policy means that children are living in abject poverty with not even enough to eat. Their parents are moving into the poorest areas with the lowest rents and the least available help. Now the supply of cheap housing is drying up, they are being forced to take the previously unrentable, filthy, run down unsafe houses.
Australia has a proud record for settling newcomers to the country. We have learnt through experience that a helping hand in the first months sets people on a path to independence and fulfilment. The current policy deliberately inflicts misery on families and children in order to deter others. Can we really justify this? Does any government have the right to harm children in order to stop others from asking for help? We then have to ask ourselves as Australians why we are so complacent and compliant about the treatment we are giving to these fellow human beings. The silence is deafening from the organisations and different levels of government witnessing this harsh policy. When people ask for help, they are being turned away from the material aid agencies who cannot cope. Australia has a dismal record on the care and protection of children dating back to the stolen Aboriginal children, the brutalised post war migrant children and the states response to children today who have no loving parents to care for them. How long before we have to apologise to these children of asylum seeking parents for treating them so meanly. Can we repair the damage to these young lives?
By Pamela Curr