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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- Questions over asylum seeker’s death at Villawood detention centre (abc.net.au)
- World Refugee Day: New Zealand at risk of abusing human rights in the name of border control (amnesty.org.nz)
- Child asylum-seekers abused in Indonesia: HRW (nation.com.pk)
- Asylum Seekers Struggle to Survive Under Israeli Restrictions (ipsnews.net)
- Asylum seeker debate mean spirited: UN boss (theage.com.au)