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Need for continued support for asylum seekers reinforced at national conference

At the recent Hearing Healing Hope conference (21-23 February, Melbourne), a workshop to garner the thoughts of delegates from around the country was held on one of Australia’s most vexing issues: how should we support asylum seekers?

Parishioners and representatives from Catholic service agencies from Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory attended the workshop. Presentations by Sr Brigid Arthur csb (Brigidine Asylum Seeker Project) and Tracey Cabrie (Centre Manager - Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub) were followed by a focused discussion, providing valuable ideas for further action.

Sr Brigid and BASP have provided vital assistance in supporting many hundreds of vulnerable people seeking asylum since BASPs inception in 2001. BASP is currently supporting 125 people in various forms of accommodation. Through its Family Support through Teaching English program, BASP supports 170 volunteers visiting families in their homes every week to teach English and ease isolation.  Two people provide pro bono legal support for BASP clients. 

Sr Brigid sees as among the greatest difficulties facing asylum seekers in Australia and offshore detention, that of uncertainty regarding the future, and physical and psychological isolation. Obtaining identity papers from war-torn countries and confirming identity can be extremely difficult. For those living in the community, obtaining accommodation and work are great challenges. Nevertheless, many people manage to find work, often in low status jobs. 

The government appears to be introducing progressively more severe measures against asylum seekers. Many in the wider community seem indifferent to the plight of asylum seekers, and to the government's harsh treatment.

In recent months the government has been withdrawing financial support from many asylum seekers, leaving many people who were just scraping by, destitute. BASP is finding that the need for emergency relief is growing rapidly, and could become much worse. 

The second speaker, Ms Tracey Cabrie, is Centre Manager of the Cabrini Asylum Seeker and Refugee Health Hub in Sydney Road, Brunswick, Melbourne. Cabrini Health opened the Hub in May 2016 in line with Cabrini's mission to the poor and in response to the evident need of asylum seekers and refugees without sufficient access to medical and other services.

Among the Hub's clients are people seeking asylum whose claims for protection have been rejected, or who otherwise lose eligibility for support under Medicare. While the Victorian Government provides access to the public health system for asylum seekers, the Hub provides primary health and specialist mental health services, social worker support and clinical services including general practice, psychiatry and physiotherapy, under one roof. The Hub has a partnership with St Vincent's Hospital for diagnostic and imaging services, as some of these are not available free through the public health system. 

Following the presentations, the group noted that the need for more resources for emergency relief as more asylum seekers are cut off from financial support has the potential to escalate quickly. If this occurs, it will present a major problem for support agencies. In addition, rental accommodation and assistance with utilities costs are expensive and difficult for agencies to obtain. 

Sr Brigid would like to see a strong Australia-wide community movement, supported by faith groups, churches and parishes, to change community attitudes towards the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.  If that occurred, sooner or later government would be obliged to introduce more humane policies to respect the high dignity of every asylum seeker and refugee, and eliminate discriminatory and punitive measures.

The group agreed with Sr Brigid, and to work to strengthen and add to existing networks of people committed to better treatment of asylum seekers. Continuing to lobby politicians through letters, visits and social media will be an important part of this strategy. 

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