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Living in limbo – community detention

Banner: Welcome refugees to Australia - refuge...

Banner: Welcome refugees to Australia – refugee protest march (Photo credit: Takver)

As I dropped two kids off at school this morning, I heard Robert Tickner on the radio. Robert is the CEO of Australian Red Cross.

Robert has said:

“While the Red Cross strongly welcomes the laudable release of people seeking asylum from immigration detention centres and believes that this is the best, most humane and sustainable approach, we urge our political leaders to take the next humanitarian step to better support them in the community,” said Robert Tickner, CEO Australian Red Cross.

http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/1782212/Red-Cross-pleads-with-MPs-on-asylum-limbo

Is living in the community better than a detention centre? Yes and no.  At least in a detention centre they are fed and kept warm and dry, provided they aren’t on Manus or Nauru.

Australian Red Cross provides support to asylum seekers in community detention. Details can be found here and here.

Yes, living in the community is better than living behind high fences and locked doors. The children can go to normal schools, if this is a family.

HOWEVER, and this is a BIG however, what is living? Most people would think that in a nation such as Australia people living here should be able to have a roof over their heads, be WARM and dry and have enough food to eat. Perhaps be able to afford electricity to watch a bit of TV. After all, they aren’t allowed to do anything else.

The reality is, this is not possible.

We had the discussions some time ago about living on the NewStart allowance.  In January Eliza Cussen wrote a brilliant piece, Living on Newstart (if you call it living) although I’ll be damned if I know where she found the $100 a week, because when I spent five months supposedly on Newstart I sure didn’t have $100 a week and I was working casual hours so rarely actually received any Newstart payments at all. In other words, I was actually earning more as a casual worker than the Newstart allowance, so I didn’t get it. Eliza and I might include different things under the heading of “Bills” though. Job hunting is an expensive exercise and Eliza was doing internships, meaning she had to have suitable clothes and travel to and from. When you are job hunting you HAVE to have a mobile phone, it is just a requirement.  Many unemployed people have families here to help out a bit. Eliza’s Dad bought her socks. I had similar help at hand. But I am not here to talk about unemployed Australians. I am here to talk about Community Detention.

 Asylum seekers get much less. When I met Mr O, asylum seekers were not entitled to concession fares on public transport (that has now changed in some locations).  The Red Cross provides the housing and some household necessities such as a fridge, washing machine, beds and so on. These items are owned by the Department of Immigration & Citizenship (DIAC). The asylum seekers then have to pay for gas, electricity, phone, water, food, transport. If they have children going to school, I am not sure who pays for the never-ending stream of school excursions: $10 here, $20 there, $40 tomorrow.

Much of Mr O’s food came from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre‘s Foodbank program. Paying the utility bills was a constant battle. Back then Mr O was allowed to do volunteer work and he will still tell you today he believes that saved his sanity. With the new “No Advantage” policy, asylum seekers can’t even do volunteer work. On the radio this morning Robert Tickner said many are left with $18 a week and often skip meals.

The study cites the case of asylum seekers who survive on less than $18 a week after paying for rent, eat a meal or two of noodles or eggs each day and live in crowded accommodation, often sleeping on the floor.

“We are not talking about destitution here by normal standards. We’re talking about what is by any measure among the most destitute people in the country, who are absolutely marginalised by every reasonable measure,” said the chief executive of Australian Red Cross, Robert Tickner.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/political-news/asylum-seekers-most-destitute-20130625-2ov7t.html#ixzz2XGsKtzP8

I remember what life was like for my husband in those days. I remember the difficulties he had dealing with our systems due to lack of understanding and knowledge. I stepped in over issues with Telstra because what he was being told just didn’t add up, but he didn’t have the experience to know that. These sorts of things can cost the asylum seekers even more money, stress and distress.

Many come here with little or no English which makes the whole situation even worse.

The Department of Immigration yesterday defended its English language program for asylum-seekers, declaring all of the men, women and children who are released into the community — including those on the controversial no-work rights bridging visas — are offered the opportunity to take English language courses “on a voluntary and needs base” for a maximum of 45 hours.

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/national-affairs/immigration/fears-restrictions-will-see-creation-of-underclass/story-fn9hm1gu-1226641542229

45 hours? I have been told by specialists in the education department it takes three to five years to develop conversational English skills. What are these poor people going to learn in 45 hours?  That is just over a working week! Mr O has now lived in this country for four years and is still taking English classes to perfect his English. Miss O 1 is still being tutored in English and has been here two years and is in school. My point is not that Australia become an English school, but that placing people in the community with limited ability to communicate, no understanding of systems and “the way Australia works” and little money to live on and NO RIGHT TO EARN ANY MONEY is asking for trouble in the short and the long term.

As anyone living in Australia knows, utilities are not cheap. Our last electricity bill was $440. We make damn sure we rug up rather than turn the heating on to ensure our gas bill is manageable. Coming from a hot country, my family feel the cold. Many of the asylum seekers come from warmer climates too and will struggle to keep their heating costs down or have enough clothes to rug up.

Managing what little money they have is not necessarily a skill asylum seekers have. Many come from environments where forward planning is not a skill they grew up with. Putting money aside to pay that looming gas bill is very difficult if your kids are hungry TODAY. Even understanding the buying power of Australian money can be difficult. Mr O still, today, will sometimes convert Australian prices to the Nigerian currency and compare what he would pay in Nigeria. Of course, that just doesn’t work.

Like many of the support agencies, I fear we are creating an underclass and we may well live to see consequences we do not want. If I recall Australian history correctly, many of the convicts sent here originally were convicted of stealing nothing more than a loaf of bread to feed their children or themselves. In this day and age we view this has a terrible state of affairs.  While there may have been no convict transported for the actual crime of stealing a loaf of bread (the jury seems to be out on that one Google tells me) some of the crimes do seem rather minor, according to Convict Facts.

Many who came after the convicts came to Australia (on boats, as it happens) to escape the class system of the old country. Yet here we are consciously creating an under class?  I will say while researching convict history for this article, I did stumble across an interesting paragraph (emphasis is mine):

Popular legend would have us believe that all the convicts were poor misunderstood creatures whose worst offence was to steal a loaf of bread – records show that no-one was transported for that offence – for their starving families. This is a load of nonsense as some of the most violent and intractable criminals in England were transported to the colonies for the ‘term of their natural life’. Some people suggest that the results of this policy can be seen today in some of our politicians. Others would suggest that this is an insult to the convicts.

http://www.wanowandthen.com/convicts.html

Note this applies to Western Australia’s colony, other references do speak of loaves of bread!

The British established a penal colony in Sydney in the 18th century, and it was here that they transported the hapless inmates of their overcrowded prisons. Some were as young as 10, having been imprisoned for crimes no worse than stealing bread to feed themselves on the streets of London. The basic problem facing Britain at the time was that its cities were overcrowded, and in the absence of a suitable war, locking their unwanted citizens up in overflowing prisons or in so-called prison hulks, permanently anchored derelict ships where conditions were little better than the slave transports. Sanitation and rations were extremely poor, and not surprisingly there was a high death rate.

http://www.ict.griffith.edu.au/~davidt/redlandbay/intro_seq.htm

Are we repeating England’s past on our own shores?

When I decry our treatment of asylum seekers I am often asked for solutions. Here is one I prepared earlier, in case you were wondering: STOP THE BOATS.

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11 comments on “Living in limbo – community detention

  1. I’ve come to the conclusion that as long as there are wars, there will be asylum seekers. War has changed shape. It’s not so much about armies these days and more about warring factions. The only way to stop that is to put pressure on governments that either ignore or covertly encourage what’s happening in their own back yard..

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  2. The question is, Robyn, why are there so many refugees who would like to find a safe place where they can live in peace. It’s a struggle for all mankind. It pobably always has been like this. We have wonderful global communication now, but we are lacking in global understanding.

    Why are peacekeepers so little understood? Why do people prefer fighting and war? Why can’t they fight for peace? I am not sure whether peaceful solutions should come from the leaders or from the people. Peaceful demonstrations by the people often end up not being peaceful. The fall of the wall in Germany was an exception, but only because all leaders cooperated and did not go to war.

    Some leaders would say we have to tell people lies for their own good, for the stability of our society. I like a stable society, I think some laws are necessary, otherwise we end up in chaos. But sorry, I can’t stand lies. I wonder how come some people don’t mind a few lies. And other people just don’t care. They do not want to think about it what are lies and what is the truth unless it affects them personally. Ah well, people are people. Some changes just take time and a lot of maturing is necessary, not just education.

    I am 79 this year and have nearly reached the end of my life. The best thing in my life has been that most of the time I have been allowed to make up my own mind about certain issues. I could sometimes not openly express what I was feeling but I was always out to be as honest as possible. Some things I find very hard to understand. But somehow I can live with this now or I try to live with it, I just try to make the most of it with what is given to me.

    Peter just pointed out to me an interesting article in the English section of the German magazine DER SPIEGEL. I may be able to reblog it.

    You have a beautiful family, Robyn. To have a loving family like you have makes life really worth living. Wishing you and all your family a great weekend. :-) Love, Aunty Uta.

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  3. This again looks like a very interesting post of yours, Robyn. I have to come back to it later. What do you think about the change in leadership?

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    • Reading this post of yours, Robyn, brings to mind how we as migrants were treated some 54 yeas ago. It was possible then to accommodate us in Nissan huts. Small electric heaters kept us warm. Food was provided. The men were soon able to work for the basic wage in the steelworks. Even if you had to live on the dole there was always a bit of money left over after having paid for the basics. Everyone was given the opportunity to take English lessons. Men could work in the steelworks with very basic English. Where Peter worked he was surrounded by people from a lot of different countries. I think he learned at his job basic Italian and various other languages. Usually hardly any of the workers were English speakers.

      Most of these migrant workers prospered over the years. So what has changed?

      I think you are right when you say that detention centres are very expensive. Why cannot this money be spent in helping asylum seekers on their feet? Why do they have to be left destitute?

      I just had an idea. If it is safe for them to go back to their own countries, why not help them to settle again in their own countries? Unfortunately I suspect that most countries they fled from still are not safe for them.

      It is different for instance with people who studied here and end up staying here even though they come from a stable society and their skills would be needed in their own country. However I do not want to say people should not be allowed to choose the country they want to live in. It’s just I hate seeing the most destitute and poor people to be treated so unfairly as to be kept in detention centres for years on end.

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      • The resettling idea (once/if safe) was floated at one stage, but sometimes the fear is too great, I think, depending on what happened originally. The psychological impact of returning to “the scene of the crime” can be terrible.

        At the moment we are tipping them out of detention centres, due to lack of space, and into the community without adequate means and no working rights. I think both options are bad, in all honesty. Detention centres are bad for well-documented reasons, yet tipping them out into the community to fend for themselves is no solution either and in fact may have more detrimental results in the the long run.

        We HAVE to think outside the square: this is not 1950.

        As to what has changed, the majority of these people aren’t white. While the White Australia Policy may have been dismantled, like sexism racism is hard to eradicate.

        I’ve often asked the question on this website, if these were boat loads of Americans, Canadians or English, would we be doing the same thing? I think we all know the answer! If it were boat loads of Kiwis, I’m not so sure! :lol:

        Thank you for sharing your experiences Uta. Much appreciated.

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    • I think a lot of things about it Uta. I haven’t decided whether to write about it or not. For the moment I think I am all “politic-ed” out. :D

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      • You are of course right that it is not 1950. So it is a different world now. However once people are here on our soil and live in our midst we ought to at least give them a bit of help in starting a new life. And I think government cannot have the attitude that someone is going to help them and government is in no way responsible what happens to them. And if there are funds for detention centres available why isn’t there some money provided to settle them in the community once they are not required to stay in detention centres any more. And really, why on earth is it not allowed to employ them? Once they live outside they should be allowed to work. As I said, when we arrived as migrants we were settled in Nissen huts. These may perhaps be regarded as substandard these days. But they helped us for a year or two to have a roof over our heads until we could afford different accommodation. Maybe these detention centres are not so very different from what these Nissen huts were like. But we weren’t locked up. We could move about freely. All the men were offered jobs in the steelworks but if people were able to find work elsewhere they were free to choose alternative employment. Woman could find work as cleaners or shop assistants and the like. Married women with children often did not have jobs for the expense of child-care did niot make it worthwhile for them to look for employment.
        It is true in the past there was a white Australia policy. However these times are long gone. We have become a very multicultural society.

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      • Agree totally Uta, re the working rights. It is this weird “no advantage” policy that, according to an article I read the other day, is really so badly defined that no-one really knows what it means.

        The costs of running the detention centres is HUGE, especially the off-shore ones.

        There is no logic to any of it, really. Very frustrating.

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