Minister! Let them work.

There is a growing number of asylum seekers living in the community who are not allowed to work. The new Minister, Brendan O’Connor, could put his stamp on the portfolio by immediately making a decision to allow almost all asylum seekers to work. The present policy of denial of work is cruel, denies the dignity of people and does not deter future asylum seekers.

The number who are not allowed to work is growing as the government, quite rightly, is releasing from immigration detention and into the community, asylum seekers on bridging visas. There are presently about 7,000 asylum seekers in immigration detention, of whom about 5,000 are adult males. Potentially and hopefully many of these people will be released progressively into the community. In future as more boat people are released into the community so work rights will become more important.

Official figures are hard to find, but it seems that releases of asylum seekers from detention into the community are running at an average of about 1,000 per month. In some months, it is much higher.

I am a patron of the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney. Currently 46% of our clients have no work rights. That proportion and the total number is increasing rapidly. It is up dramatically over the last 12 months where more and more of our clients come by boat rather than air. Basically, asylum seekers who come by air are allowed to work but those who come by boat are not allowed to work. What a nonsense this is, particularly as boat arrivals have about double the rate of successful refugee determination as those who come by air.

Asylum seekers living in the community are already placing heavy strains on the NGO’s that are struggling to help. These strains will increase on such organizations as Red Cross and the Asylum Seeker Centres.

But the burden on the individual is the greatest worry. Most asylum seekers have escaped from terror and violence and many are traumatised. To deny them work rights is likely to worsen their mental state. It makes it harder for others to help them if they are forced into idleness. They are often humiliated within their family.

In this situation, desperate asylum seekers are likely to feel they have no other choice but to take up work illegally. In this situation they are often exploited. This will give the Scott Morrisons, Alan Jones and the Ray Hadleys of this world another opportunity to demonize ‘illegals and criminals’.

There is a persistent myth that refusal of work rights and other penalties will deter new asylum seekers and particularly boat people. But there is no evidence whatsoever that this deterrent works. In almost all cases asylum seekers are escaping appalling conditions, from the Taliban for example. Those situations are far worse than anything that we can throw at them.

Beyond denial of work rights, there are many other hardships and handicaps forced upon asylum seekers. They often have limited accommodation help and some have no access to Medicare. Under the government’s policy of ‘no advantage”, many could be waiting in the community for five years.

The ‘support’ arrangements for asylum seekers in the community are chaotic and quite arbitrary. Arja Keski-Nummi and I have described them as Kafkaesque. (See article in johnmenadue.com) These arrangements are a mass of contradictions wrapped up in confusion. But one thing the Minister could do, and do quickly, would be to cut through this confusion and allow almost all asylum seekers to work. Taxpayers would benefit. Allowing asylum seekers to work in the community would be far cheaper than keeping them locked up in those hellholes of Immigration Detention Centres. Those centres chew up enormous amounts of money as well as very vulnerable people.

Historically Labor governments have espoused the dignity of labour and the self-esteem personally and in the community that goes with hard work. Where are those values today?

Asylum seekers are not criminals. They are courageous people who have taken great risks in escaping persecution for the sake of safety for themselves and their children.  Asylum seekers and particularly their children, become great citizens and contributors to this country.

Minister, please grasp the nettle and let asylum seekers work. Start a breakthrough in this toxic political approach to asylum seekers .Australia can do better than this. We have shown it in the past

John Menadue

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