Imagine a world in which you are not allowed to work, have no income support and are denied all health benefits. You have no way of supporting yourself or your family. And you know no one who can help you. What would you do? How would you survive?
What sounds like the premise for a dark and twisted reality TV show is in fact a very real predicament for thousands of community-based asylum seekers in Australia.
The bridging visa E category (BVE) allows asylum seekers to reside lawfully in the community while they await the final outcome of their applications for protection visas and appeals procedures.
But for many asylum seekers, BVEs are a double-edged sword. All too often the joy that comes with being granted such a visa is countered with the awful realisation that survival will be virtually impossible under the draconian conditions attached.
The government's arcane "45-day rule" means that an asylum seeker who is granted a BVE is only entitled to work rights and Medicare if they made their application within 45 days of arriving in Australia. The vast majority of people who make their application outside that period miss out. The Asylum Seeker Project (ASP) estimates that around 40 per cent of BVE holders fall into the latter category.
While Minister for Immigration Amanda Vanstone refuses to reveal the number of BVE holders in Australia, it is estimated that there are around 1,000 in Melbourne alone.
For those without a support network of family or friends in Australia, the consequences can be dire: abject poverty, homelessness and severe health problems left untreated.
A recent report by Anne McNevin, of the Australian National University, Seeking Safety, Not Charity, featured some disturbing case studies that highlight the unjust nature of the 45-day rule. There was the young woman from the Horn of Africa who lodged her protection visa application in 2000 and, with no way to earn a living, spent most of the next few years homeless. At one point she was hospitalised for malnutrition.
Another asylum seeker, an African woman who had been the victim of genital mutilation in her homeland, was refused an appointment with a gynaecologist because she had no Medicare card. A single mother, she was also unable to get medical treatment for her two-year-old son when he fell ill.
And then there was the little boy from the Middle East who had to walk two hours to and from school each day because his family could not afford public transport fares. They were so poor that he sometimes went for entire days without food.
These are not isolated cases. An ASP study of 200 community-based asylum seekers found that 95 per cent had no work rights or Medicare benefits; 68 per cent were homeless or at risk of homelessness; 44 per cent were in debt to friends, lawyers or had outstanding bills or detention costs; and 24 per cent had been refused medical treatment because of their status.
It is unacceptable for the government to inflict such suffering on people who have come to this country seeking refuge. In many cases it is a flagrant breach of the Refugee Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
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