Welfare groups are struggling to cope with demand from asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas without the right to work.  
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World News Australia
20 Mar 2014 - 2:20 PM  UPDATED 20 Mar 2014 - 4:17 PM

Welfare groups are struggling to cope with demand from asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas without the right to work.

(Transcript from World News Radio)

More than, 20,000 asylum seekers in Australia have been living for months below the poverty line, most on limited welfare payments.

And the rate at which their claims for asylum are being processed seems unlikely to speed up, with the federal government re-imposing a limit on the number of protection visas being allocated.

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Every week the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in west Melbourne makes thousands of free meals for asylum seekers living on little to no income.

Five years ago, the daily maximum for hot lunches prepared at the Centre's kitchen was 100.

Today, sometimes the number is almost double that.

The Centre's Director of Aid, Patrick Lawrence, says over 75 per cent of patrons are on bridging visas, with no right to work.

He says some don't even qualify for the limited welfare payments that most are receiving.

"What we find is that asylum seekers are often in a far worse situation than any other person in the Australian community. There are asylum seekers we support here who have literally no income. No money from the government, no work rights, no job. They have no income."

Asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat after August 2012 have no working rights.

The government allocates a living allowance of just over $200 a week.

But the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre's Patrick Lawrence says it's not enough.

"You can imagine after looking after your accommodation, paying your bills. We find anecdotally that most asylum seekers have about $20 a week for food and that is clearly not enough."

Patrick Lawrence says, in response, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre is launching a campaign to fund a mobile food market for the thousands in the community who it believes are not getting adequate food.

The Food Justice Truck will sell heavily discounted groceries to asylum seekers to make their food budget stretch much further.

"The purpose of the Food Justice Truck is to take this mobile market out to asylum seekers and to sell to the general public at market rates but to asylum seeker customers at a 75 per cent discount so that the $20 they have to spend on food turns into $80 of food."

The Centre receives donations from various food suppliers, one of which is SecondBite.

This organisation takes food from various supermarkets and producers, that would otherwise be thrown out, and redistributes it to those in need.

But SecondBite is also struggling to cope with an increase in demand.

CEO of the organisation Elaine Montegriffo says it has seen an increase of 75 per cent in requests for food aid.

And a lot of that new demand is driven by asylum seekers.

"We supply about 1100 agencies, that run community food programs across all of Australia and they've told us that about 26 per cent of people using their services are asylum seekers or new arrivals."

Ms Montegriffo says there are over 80 organisations on SecondBite's waiting list.

The agency increased its output by over 20 percent in the past year, but that's as far as its limited funds will stretch.

She says SecondBite does its best to ensure clients also get food that's culturally-appropriate.

"We've got agencies that support Asian communities so there is a high requirement for lots of greens and that kind of food, where as the asylum seekers from the African region, we try and give them more of the root vegetables, the yams, the sweet potatoes."

And Secondbite doesn't expect a decrease in requests for food anytime soon.

The limit on the number of protection visas being granted will continue at least until the end of the financial year.

The Immigration Minister's office has told SBS, the government is having to deal with a legacy of more than 33,000 unresolved asylum cases inherited from the Labor government.

It's the second time a limit on protection visas has been enacted.

Immigration Minister Scott Morrison capped the visas late last year, but quickly revoked the move before a pending court challenging its legality.

Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young calls it chaotic policy-making.

"It's almost like hokey pokey with regulations, they put them in, they take them out, they put them in again, they take them out, it's all about avoiding the scrutiny of the parliament, it's all about avoiding and circumventing the court and the legal process and the upshot of all of this, is the government were never happy when the Senate moved last year to disallow temporary protection visas. They're so desperate to be as harsh as possible to the refugees who live in the Australian community. Now, this isn't about deterrence, of course, because these people are already here."

A spokeswoman for the Immigration Department says the government is hindered in bringing down the number of people waiting for protection visas, as Labor and the Greens continually block passage of re-instating temporary protection visas.

Under the Howard government, TPV holders were required to re-apply every three years for continued protection.

The TPV holders had no family reunion rights, and if their homeland was deemed to be safe by the government, they were expected to return.

Vice President of the Australian Association of Social Workers, Christine Craik says reintroducing TPVs would further damage the welfare of asylum seekers.

"There are reasons why we don't want the old temporary protection visas back. On those visas people were second class citizens as well and it was developing an underclass amongst our newer Australians. It should be an either or, we really need to get together and have an intelligent debate around this to find a way forward."

Ms Craik says research has found that those living on temporary visas - like TPVs or bridging visas - are subject to mental health issues - particularly if they have no right to work.

"For good mental health you need to have some meaningful activity in your life. And for most people that's through their work, through their families, being able to provide for their families. When you're on one of these visas you're not able to have any meaningful work in your life so it affects your mental health at every level."

The reintroduction of TPVs is prospect that the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre says it can't bear to witness.

Transferring from a bridging visa to a temporary protection visa would allow some asylum seekers gain the right to work.

But the Centre's Director of Aid Patrick Lawrence says the negative aspects of the TPV would far outweigh any benefits.

"Australia needs to do its international duty and do the right thing by supporting as many of these people as we can, and support means resettlement. It doesn't mean we can look after you for a little while, you can't leave the country, you can't meet any of your family either in your country of origin or a third country, you can't bring any of them out and in a couple of years we might send you back. That is not resettlement, that is not security, that is not just, that is not right and we will absolutely oppose it with every force available to us."