Policy as punishment: asylum seekers in the community without the right to work

Refugees Right of asylum Australia

Introduction: This research paper details the experiences of 29 asylum seekers who were released from immigration detention in Australia into community-based arrangements with no right to work and limited entitlements. All of the men and women interviewed for this research arrived to Australia by boat after 13 August 2012, the date when the former Labor Government commenced this policy.

The term “asylum seeker” refers here to an individual who arrived to Australia wishing to claim asylum but whose refugee status is yet to be determined. An individual is found to be a refugee if it is considered likely they would face persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. The Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) report that 88 per cent of the refugee claims that were processed in 2012-13 for asylum seekers who came to Australia by boat resulted in protection visas being granted. During the previous three years, over 90 per cent of these claims resulted in protection visas being granted. It is likely, therefore, that a significant proportion of asylum seekers currently in Australia who arrived by boat will also be recognised as refugees.

This paper aims to elevate the experiences of asylum seekers living in the community without the right to work. It is important that the voices of those most affected by government policies are heard. While some argue that democratically elected governments have a mandate to implement the asylum policies they outlined prior to an election,8 decision makers must also consider the impacts of these policies on asylum seekers themselves. Governments retain vast powers to decide the fate of asylum seekers who arrive at the borders. This ‘asymmetry of power’ has too often meant that policies have been adopted in Australia that ignore the right of people fleeing persecution to seek asylum. These policies have also been adopted despite the existence of research that documents the harm created by earlier such policies.

As the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection acknowledges, some 27,000 asylum seekers that continue to live in the community without the right to work have been left ‘effectively sitting around’. Our research findings reinforce that policy shifts are needed to address this. However, the experiences of asylum seekers themselves must guide future policy making. To this end, the words of the interviewees are included here as much as possible to illustrate the findings of this research. Many of our findings are consistent with those of other studies on asylum seekers and the right to work. We discuss this relevant research and make recommendations accordingly at the end of each section. Before discussing the research findings, we provide an overview of current policy and outline the research design and methodology.

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