Temporary visa holders are being neglected by the federal government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, refugee advocacy groups have told a parliamentary inquiry.
Refugee support groups are experiencing a surge in demand for support services as those excluded from government coronavirus programs turn to them for help.
Groups including the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre have detailed the economic and social toll the crisis is taking on bridging and temporary visa holders in submissions to a Senate inquiry into Australia's response to COVID-19.
The ASRC says it alone has seen up to a “three-fold” increase in demand for its food, health and employment service.
It blames the surge in presentations on the exclusion of temporary migrants from support measures such as the government’s JobKeeper wage subsidy and JobSeeker welfare benefits for the unemployed.
ASRC director of advocacy and campaigns, Jana Favero, said the “wilful neglect” is shocking and “wholly unnecessary”.
“[These] people have paid tax for years, worked and contributed back to the economy and community, yet cannot protect themselves against homelessness, loss of legal status, deteriorating health or COVID-19 infection,” she said.
The ASRC is lobbying for the government schemes to be extended to include the 2.1 million temporary migrants in Australia, including migrant workers, international students and asylum seekers living in the community.
850 new requests for help
The ASRC submission describes people who are presenting with poor physical and mental health due to stress and isolation, and warns some are facing hunger and homelessness because of the pandemic.
The centre says it has seen 850 new presentations in the first four months of the year compared to 1,249 during the entire previous year.
It says 271 of those people have lost their jobs or had hours significantly reduced during the crisis, but are excluded from welfare support measures.
Another 600 people, who the ASRC says are job-ready, also remain on its employment wait-list but have been unable to secure work amid the economic downturn.
Of the 1,985 people provided with emergency food packs, up to 90 per cent had no income.
The centre said the increase in demand for its services reflects the government's failure to support temporary migrants, many of whom were self-reliant before the pandemic.
Up to one million Australians have lost their jobs during the pandemic, with the impacts of the crisis far from being limited to temporary visa holders.
However, refugee support groups say without access to the JobKeeper and JobSeeker payments, temporary visa holders are being left even more vulnerable.
South Australia-based Justice for Refugees SA is another group that has detailed its concerns to the inquiry.
The group says of 94 individuals who shared their employment status while receiving food assistance, 67 per cent had lost jobs as a direct result of the pandemic.
Another 10 per cent who had been working full time were now on reduced or part-time hours.
Temporary visa holders are highly represented in sectors that were exposed to coronavirus restrictions measures including the hospitality, services and tourism sectors.
Returning home not an option for many visa holders
The federal government has told temporary migrants who can no longer support themselves to “strongly” consider returning to their home countries.
The Department of Home Affairs says where this is not possible most temporary visa holders who have worked in Australia will now be able to access their superannuation.
It has said there is an expectation on most temporary visa holders to support themselves during their time in Australia.
A financial hardship payment may also be available to certain visa holders under the Special Benefit scheme.
But the ASRC says returning home is not an option for those seeking asylum and refugees who face the risk of persecution and possible death.
It has also noted other challenges faced by temporary migrants including the stress of meeting rental payments and accessing medical services.
The ASRC said it has seen 433 people presenting for GP clinics, immunisations and pharmacy vouchers due to a lack of access to Medicare.
Other concerns raised by the refugee support groups include people confronting an increased risk of losing their legal status and difficulties navigating the immigration processing system.
In their submissions, they warn COVID-19 restrictions have made it harder for people to access support services to complete required forms and applications, and have some people struggling to apply for visa renewal.
The ASRC also said a decline in face-to-face consultations and transition to telephone meetings could hinder more complex immigration cases, particularly those involving the use of interpreters.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge has previously told temporary migrants worried about their visa expiring and without a way home to contact immigration officials.
Some states and territories have taken steps to support temporary visa holders during the pandemic including Tasmania and the ACT, whereas others have only extended support to international students.
The Human Rights Law Centre has also expressed concerns over “unacceptable” health risks for people detained in immigration detention facilities in a submission to the inquiry.
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