Since the Labor government announced the re-opening of offshore detention on Nauru and Manus Island on 13 August last year over 19,000 asylum seekers have arrived by boat. The policy has cleary failed to stop refugees coming to Australia—because they have no other place to turn to escape death and danger at home.

But with Nauru and Manus Island overflowing, the government has begun releasing asylum seekers into the community in Australia on bridging visas which deny them the right to work. Instead they must survive on $440 a fortnight—89 per cent of the lowest Centrelink payment. There are now over 7000 asylum seekers living in this desperate situation. The ‘no advantage’ measures introduced last August mean that these asylum seekers are not being processed. The Immigration Department estimates they will be joined by another 500 every fortnight. The refugee rights movement is demanding the right to work and an immediate start to processing.

Reverend John Jegasothy of the Uniting Church spoke recently at a Refugee Action Coalition forum in Sydney on his experience working with newly arrived Tamil refugees living on bridging visas. John is a refugee himself who arrived here from Sri Lanka 20 years ago.

“Asylum seekers come out of detention into an empty home. When they go in there’s nothing in the house. Red Cross and their case managers try to connect them with service providers like the Salvation Army and Vinnes but they are inundated with calls and don’t have enough [furniture and clothes] to give.

We get calls from various people telling us [things like] that in this particular house six fellows are sleeping on the floor; they have no blankets, no sheets, no pillows. The same thing with utensils to cook. Help comes from the community but with thousands coming out of detention, how many can we look after? How many calls are we going to get? It’s a nightmare for us.

For those who have come after 13 August, there’s no right to work. They get $215 a week, $440 a fortnight, but it’s $36 a day, it’s a very small amount for them to survive. How do they survive? Mohan, one asylum seeker I know, lives eight people in one house, in a three bedroom house with mattresses everywhere. They put in $30 per fortnight for food, and some good soul comes and takes them to the shops, to buy vegetables and fruits and all the things they need. They try to set apart a little money to save so they can pay their $500 to $600 electricity bill every few months, and then they pay $91.25 for their fortnightly rent.

Two of the guys I know couldn’t find a house in Sydney so they moved to Melbourne. They ended up in a crisis home with drug addicts and they got scared. A church picked them up along with an Iranian sleeping in a park freezing for three nights, they all now live in one house.

They save a little bit of money so they can send money back home. Because they’ve all pawned their land, or the parents have pawned their jewels, or those who have loaned them money are at their throat. And their family back there don’t really understand. Some of their marriages are on the rocks because their wives are so sad on the other side, they can’t get any support from them from here. Their families are also in a dangerous situation because people know the man is out and the women and their children are alone. They are very vulnerable over there. Some of the guys have stopped talking to their wives because they can’t handle it. When are the families going to come? Five years, six years, ten years?

They have to learn English, but with all the uncertainty: when are they going to be processed? When are we going to get permanent residency? They don’t have the mind to learn English. To learn the language there should be some hope of settling down in this country which is not there.

We’re trying to integrate them as soon as they come, there’s a group called meet and greet formed with the assistance of the Migrant Resource Centre in Parramatta to try to cater for these guys and accept them as part of the Tamil community.

Mohan says, we suffered over there, now we are suffering in a different way. Getting up in the morning they worry, what is happening at home, what will happen to us tomorrow?”

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