These asylum seeker families are being given free childcare in Sydney

For children who are not even of school age, their education can cost more than $25,000 a year. With high fees impacting one of Australia’s most vulnerable groups, a Sydney council and charity has stepped in.

Salbiah Mohd

Salbiah Mohd and her two sons. Source: Lucy Murray/SBS News

After five years in Australia, Salbiah Mohd can finally take English classes. 

Her four-year-old son Haqqi has been given an opportunity to attend a childcare centre in Western Sydney, so she can prioritise her own education. 

Like many asylum seekers, Ms Mohd, who is from Malaysia, does not have family in Australia to help out with childcare, nor can she access childcare subsidies as she is not an Australian citizen or permanent resident.

Haqqi is one of three children in a pilot program for asylum seekers at St John’s Early Childhood Service in Auburn, Sydney. Without it, his mother would have to fork out about $100 per day.

Four-year-old Haqqi now has a place at a childcare centre. Source: Lucy Murray/SBS News

Haqqi’s favourite part about childcare is the sandpit, where he digs holes with his new pals and chatters away in English. 

“He learns more here than at home while they are playing in the safe environment and I can go to my English class, which is like ‘me time’ as well,” Ms Mohd told SBS News. 

“His English is better than mine I think. I have leant some words from him.”

Cost of childcare out of reach for many

St John’s Early Childhood Service is part of not-for-profit Sydney Catholic Early Childhood Services (SCECS), which is funding the pilot. 

A bigger program run by the Bankstown Canterbury Council is also encouraging childcare centres to offer places left vacant at the start of the year to asylum seeker children. 

According to Care for Kids, a website which connects families to daycare providers, the average cost of childcare is $106 per day in Australia, which is $530 per week, per child. 

To put that in perspective, the average rental price in Sydney is also $530 a week, according to the latest Domain Rental Report.

“It is very expensive for us especially as my family does not have much income,” Ms Mohd said. 

For Australian citizens and permanent residents, the cost can be reduced by 80 per cent through government subsidies.  

Source: Lucy Murray/SBS News

The Department of Home Affairs told SBS News there are currently 33,000 permanent protection visa applicants, or asylum seekers, in Australia. But this number does not include those who have applied for a temporary protection visa or those contesting a refusal of their application in court.   

The Refugee Council of Australia estimates the actual number of asylum seekers on bridging visas to be approximately 60,000, with five per cent of those (3,000) being children under five. 

Families caught in a catch-22

Ms Mohd cannot afford to pay for childcare for Haqqi’s younger brother, so she takes him to English classes with her, while her husband works. 

“My husband working at the moment, but as a casual, he will do any job,” she said. 

The Refugee Council of Australia said many asylum seekers find it difficult to secure a full-time position. 

“It is very difficult for people who are on short term bridging visas to convince employers to give them a go because employers are often worried about the implications of employing someone whose visa may run out,” the council’s CEO Paul Power said. 

Franceyn O'Connor
Sydney Catholic Early Childhood Services managing director Franceyn O'Connor. Source: Lucy Murray/SBS News

He argues asylum seeker families with young children are stuck in a catch-22, where a parent needs return to work to help earn a better living for their family, but if they do, their weekly wage will be absorbed by childcare fees. 

“We are seeing a growing number of people on bridging visas that are homeless, destitute and struggling to put food on the table,” he said. 

“The majority of them actually have no income or very unreliable income so the financial need is among the greatest of any group in society.”

That claim is supported by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees which interviewed asylum seekers on bridging visas in Australia. 

found many were “unable to meet their basic needs” and “are without essential furniture items such as beds and refrigerators”.  

There is some welfare support available to asylum seekers through the federal government’s Status Resolution Support Services. 

The SRSS payment is paid at 89 per cent of the current Newstart allowance, which equals a maximum of $538 per fortnight, or $38 per day for an asylum seeker with dependent children.  

Organisations stepping in to help

Private and local government-run childcare centres are helping to address the issue by offering vacant places to asylum seeker families. Nine places are currently offered in Western Sydney’s Canterbury Bankstown Council. 

Nursing student Emmanuel Orachusim’s daughter, three-year-old Osi, is another of the recipients. 

Mr Orachusim is from Nigeria and fled to Australia after fearing for his life. His wife flew to meet him when she was seven months pregnant.

Emmanuel Orachusim
Emmanuel Orachusim and his daughter Osi. Source: Lucy Murray/SBS News

He is extremely grateful for the childcare support. 

“To be honest with you it is like the biggest burden has been lifted for me and they are doing it with a beautiful smile on their face,” he said. 

“She is really, really happy,” he said of Osi. “The more kids associate with their other fellow kids, they get that basic knowledge that we as parents can’t teach them, so it gives her that background to be bold and confident.”

“At the same time, it gives us [the parents] space to focus on the things we should do, for me my studies.” 

Osi attends St John’s Early Childhood Service at the moment, but if her parents’ asylum claim takes years to be decided, she is eligible for a scholarship at the nearby primary school. 

“Sydney Catholic schools have come into partnership with us and have agreed that any child that we enrol who is on that bridging visa from an asylum-seeking family have right of passage through to the primary school just next door to us,” childcare managing director Franceyn O’Connor said. 

The pilot program will be reassessed at the end of the year but the centre hopes to offer more places in the future and expects demand to be high.  

Ms Mohd is beyond grateful for the opportunity.  

“Australia is one of the safest places in the world, so we are looking at a good future, can grow family here.” 

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6 min read
Published 4 March 2020 at 5:49pm
By Lucy Murray