We live in a society founded on the values of fairness, reciprocity and freedom. Whether you call it a scallop or a potato cake, you’re a millennial or older than Phillip Ruddock, across lines of politics and race, these values hold true.
We would all like to think that in our moment of need we would be supported by our community. Daily across Facebook and the media, there are countless examples of people proudly going above and beyond for members of their community, even for complete strangers. The #sofaforlondon movement in the wake of the London Bridge attack earlier this year is a perfect example of this. People posted on social media offering beds (and salt and vinegar chips) to strangers who were left stranded in the attacks. Examples of this exist at home as well, like the overwhelming response after the Victorian bushfires in the last decade. We are great at jumping into action when people need help. Why then, are Australians so happy to eschew these values when considering the question of refugees?
Many social and economic factors inform the health and wellbeing of humans. Housing insecurity, job hunting, lack of access to proper medical care, limited education pathways, lack of transport. These things pile up. Not only do refugees face these stresses with no supportive community or family, but also after years of trying to get to Australia, often fleeing horrific wars, genocides and famines. At the time of their greatest need, the government resolves that the best thing to do it to lock them up and throw away the key.
The government decided in late August to cut welfare payments to 100 of the 400 people seeking asylum in Australia that have come to the mainland from regional processing centres for medical treatment. They plan to extend the cuts to the other 300 people in this group in the coming months, including pregnant women, 37 babies and 90 children who attend school in Australia. This means they will stop receiving the paltry $200 a fortnight they have to support their family, and will also be kicked out of supported accommodation. With a name that would not be out of place in an Orwell novel, the “Final Departure bridging E visa” which stipulates these conditions, was given to 100 people with no notice.
As a young, qualified person with an acceptable grasp of the English Language and a good knowledge of the workings of Australian society, I know how hard it can be to find a job. These people who have been transferred to Australia for serious medical illness must find a way to support themselves in just three weeks, with the possibility of being deported at any time, a prospect sure to turn off any employer. To add insult to injury, the government has also stuck by its policy that those over 18 years old cannot access education or training programs, giving them even less opportunity to find jobs. This has huge implications for those at school. Why bother applying yourself and working hard, just to be barred from further education and face a desperate future?
Being transferred to Australia in the first place is no mean feat, as we have seen in several cases, such of that of Hamid Kazhei, who died on Manus Island of sepsis from a cut in his foot because the government would not transfer him to the mainland to get the attention he needed. Or the multiple pregnant mothers with pre-eclampsia who have been refused transfer and have no access to obstetric care. This shows that the group in question who did make it to Australia are extraordinarily resilient and are in genuine need of care.
There is strong evidence to show that reduction in funding for welfare has major effects on the health of newcomers. Eroding economic and social conditions negatively impacts on health by reducing access to healthcare, deterioration in mental health and increases domestic violence. 
The government has already made people seeking asylum vulnerable, through damaging policies that incorporate unnecessarily long processing times, keep people in detention under inhospitable conditions, offer few options for family reunification, deny full work rights and withhold social services. This new policy will further exacerbate the disadvantage that these people currently endure.
It is deeply concerning that post-arrival factors have a worse impact on the outcomes for children seeking asylum, than the trauma of the war-torn countries they come from. A recent study published in the Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health showed that childrens’ environment after arriving in Australia had more impact on their physical health and wellbeing than the process of getting to Australia and the traumas they experienced before arriving. Irresponsible policies like the recent welfare cuts contribute strongly to this observation. The government even went as far as threatening children in their letter about the Bridging E visa, writing to parents “Please remind your children that they will also be required to abide by Australian values and laws. Breaking Australian laws may result in their removal from the community.”
The Government is pushing the financial burden to support asylum seekers on community and not-for-profit organisations, straining their already limited resources. Refugees and people seeking asylum are starting from a point of compromise. It is our obligation as a caring community that values equity to springboard them into starting their lives in Australia, rather than holding them back or providing a flimsy safety net. It’s time to say enough is enough and stop them bullying the most vulnerable members of our society.
Sibella Breidahl and Jasmin Sekhon
Crossing Borders For Health is AMSA Global Health’s project that aims to advocate for refugees and people seeking asylum. With arms covering Education, Advocacy and Projects we aim to give students a functional understand of the refugee crisis, with a focus on the Australian context, as well as contributing to the advocacy based around creating a fair and fast processing system for people seeking asylum in Australia. Jasmin and Sib are Crossing Border’s 2017 National Project Managers.
Conflicts of interes
- The Guardian staff and Press Association (2017). #sofaforlondon: residents open their doors in wake of London Bridge attack. The Guardian.
- Marmot, M., Wilkinson R. (2003). Social Determinants of Health, The Solid Facts. [online] The World Health Organisation. Available at: https://books.google.com.au/books?hl=en&lr=&id=QDFzqNZZHLMC&oi=fnd&pg=PA5&ots=xVnIhIXLht&sig=VgESJrtwTaI0QSetN4CDEtU6k1E&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false [Accessed 8 Sep. 2017].
- Robertson, J. (2017). Coalition to cut income support for 100 asylum seekers in Australia. The Guardian Australia.
- Simich, L., Beiser, M., Stewart, M. and Mwakarimba, E. (2005). Providing Social Support for Immigrants and Refugees in Canada: Challenges and Directions. Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 7(4), pp.259-268.
- Zwi, K., Rungan, S., Woolfenden, S., Woodland, L., Palasanthiran, P. and Williams, K. (2017). Refugee children and their health, development and well-being over the first year of settlement: A longitudinal study. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health, [online] 53(9), pp.841-849. Available at: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jpc.13551/full [Accessed 8 Sep. 2017].