Settlement Services International is dismayed that Australia’s 2020-21 Budget has delivered stimulus and incentives to businesses and those on high incomes by sacrificing those most vulnerable -- in Australia and overseas – to a future of destitution.
Of particular concern are cuts to Australia’s humanitarian (refugee) intake and the drastic reduction of support for asylum seekers living in our communities. Early in the pandemic SSI joined other NGOs in calling on the government to leave nobody behind, “build back better” and avoid mass-unemployment and social unrest after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now SSI General Manager Service Delivery – Settlement, Yamamah Agha, can only see Australia building back worse.
“Many of us in the community sector were really hoping that, after COVID, Australia would build back better,” she said.
“When we asked, ‘What sort of country do we want Australia to be?’ we thought the answer should include building on our human rights track record and our proud history of supporting people affected by crises.
“As global humanitarian needs continued to rise, we wanted our government to maintain its commitment to welcoming refugees.
“But now it is cutting refugee intake from 18,750 places to 13,750.”
She said SSI was encouraged to hear that the humanitarian intake would be reviewed every year, allowing the government to return the cap to pre-pandemic levels if the global situation improved, and that the government would continue to focus on settlement and integration support for humanitarian entrants.
“We must not forget what it means to be a strong global citizen, meeting reciprocal relationships,” she said.
“We must not forget that resettlement is a literal lifeline for people whose lives are at risk due to war or persecution.
“If we were to permanently cut our humanitarian program while there is dire and escalating need across Africa, Asia and the Middle East we would risk drawing comparison with Trump’s United States.
“Resuming refugee settlement when the borders open will enhance our economy and our society. More importantly, it is the right thing to do.”
Another measure in the 2020-21 Budget robs hope from people in need of protection. Financial support for people seeking asylum has been cut by 86% from $139.8 million in 2017-18 to just $19.6 million in 2020-21, despite a substantial increase in the numbers of people in need.
In addition to deepening a worsening crisis, putting over 100,000 people, including around 16,000 children, at further risk of homelessness and destitution, this decision shifts the responsibility for support from the government to already stretched community organisations.
People seeking asylum are ineligible for JobSeeker and JobKeeper. Thousands have lost work since the start of the pandemic, particularly given they are largely employed on temporary and casual contracts in heavily impacted industries, such as hospitality.
Community and support organisations are already struggling to meet the overwhelming number of requests for emergency relief support, reporting at least a 300% increase in the need for emergency food and rental relief for people seeking asylum since the pandemic began.
Ms Agha said, “These men, women and children are facing very real destitution. They are part of our community and deserve our support; they do not deserve further homelessness, hunger and ill-health.”
She said, “SSI believes in the social and economic dividend of our diversity. We believe that should include everyone. No-one should be left behind: not the aged, not the homeless, not victims of domestic violence, not working women needing childcare, not those left destitute because of lack of access to JobKeeper and JobSeeker.
“With this Budget we have lost an opportunity to provide a sustainable solution for people who are not part of the taxation system, people on low or no income who could benefit from targeted support, including social and affordable housing.
“We don’t want the most vulnerable people in our community becoming the most serious victims of the COVID recession, locked into entrenched, debilitating poverty.
"It's really sad that our wonderful nation is appearing to be so cruel and vindictive.
“We need to keep asking, ‘What sort of society do we want to be?’ Australia could be the land of opportunity, underpinned by social inclusion, where everyone achieves their potential. The undercurrent of this year’s Budget does not reflect that at all.”