'So many people at breaking point': Australia's migrant support services are buckling under pressure

A new survey shows almost nine in 10 migrant and multicultural services reported increased numbers of people reaching out for help during COVID-19.

Kumaran* and his wife Kulali* are now without an income or support from government COVID-19 measures.

Kumaran* and his wife Kulali* are now without an income or support from government COVID-19 measures. Source: SBS News

Charities and community groups are facing a perfect storm of higher demand for services and reduced funding due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A survey by the UNSW Social Policy Research Centre found three quarters of those working with migrant and multicultural communities, Indigenous people and in the areas of legal and social advocacy reported an increase in demand for services.

Before COVID-19, Kumaran worked in a warehouse east of Melbourne. But for the last six months, his family has been surviving on handouts.

A successful businessman in Sri Lanka, he never intended to live in Australia like this.

“I am not happy asking for help from everyone, because I feel like I am begging and I don’t want that life,” Kumaran* told SBS News. 

A successful businessman in Sri Lanka, Kumaran* never intended to live in Australia like this.
Source: SBS News

Kumaran and wife Kulali* are ethnic Tamils seeking asylum, who came to Australia in 2012 on a bridging visa. 

After working in Australia for seven years, he is now without an income or support from government COVID-19 measures, and fears for the future.

"I’m not sure what my future is going to be. I’m really worried." 

They couple have relied on help from asylum seeker and community services.

The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRSC) has had a 400 per cent increase in demand for services in the last few months.

“People who were working, paying taxes and contributing to the economy are now instead queuing up for our food banks, turning up in need of homeless services with kids at risk and whole families at risk,” CEO Kon Karapanagiotidis told SBS News. 

He said 85 per cent of those needing meals from the ASRC in recent months had no income at all.

Kon Karapanagiotidis from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre
Source: SBS News: Abby Dinham

The survey also found 31 per cent of organisations had frozen staff recruitment and 21 per cent had reduced staff hours.

This is mainly due to a loss of investment income, lower public and corporate donations, less income from commercial operations and a loss of grants.

One in five service providers said they would need to cut jobs when the JobKeeper wage subsidy support tapers off, according to the study for ACOSS and the COSS Network supported by Community Sector Banking.

"As community sector workers rise to meet increasing demand for services, they are also reporting serious concerns about the financial stress their own organisations are facing," Australian Council of Social Service chief Cassandra Goldie said.

She said JobKeeper had been a lifeline for the community sector, allowing it to keep on staff to help those in need.

JobKeeper has been a lifeline for the community sector
Source: AAP

"Unless the federal government steps in to provide additional financial support for the community sector, as JobKeeper winds down services will need to cut staff hours, jobs, and services, at a time when there is more need than ever," she said. 

The sector also wants a government commitment to renew what is known as the Equal Remuneration Order supplementation, set up in 2012 to ensure fair pay within community sector organisations.

The supplement, worth $554 million in 2020/21, is due to end in June 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to higher than usual unemployment, worsening financial pressure on families, housing stress and a rise in serious mental health issues.

Mr Karapanagiotidis also warned Australia could be facing a catastrophic humanitarian crisis unless the COVID-19 safety net measures are extended to those on temporary and bridging visas.

“I’ve never seen more people hungry, more people homeless, more people at desperation point, more people at breaking point,” he said.

Additional reporting: Abby Dinham

Names changed for privacy reasons

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Published 18 September 2020 at 6:16am, updated 18 September 2020 at 9:12pm
Source: AAP-SBS