CatholicCare is reporting a large spike in calls for help from desperate families who have no access to the multi-billion-dollar JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments keeping hundreds of thousands of recently sacked Australians fed and housed.
More than one million people in Australia are on temporary working visas including: the majority of asylum seekers, many refugees, international students, working holidaymakers, bridging visa holders, and those on temporary protection visas; most are ineligible for government support packages.
CatholicCare Multicultural Family Support worker Nina Niemeyer says she is presently supporting 15 families on temporary visas, (three above her usual capacity), who lost their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are now in dire financial straits. Her colleague Mirja Colding-Moran is also supporting 15 families and neither expect demand to ease any time soon.
“The situation is getting worse – we are receiving more and more referrals from other support agencies every week and our waiting list is growing quickly,” Ms Niemeyer said. “We are forced to prioritise the referrals and at the moment we’re prioritising people who can’t afford food and other basic essentials along with those at risk of domestic violence and homelessness. Many are asylum seekers.”
Requests for food support has resulted in the greatest increase followed closely by rental assistance. “OzHarvest delivers ‘food bags’ to the Diocese cool-room and then my colleagues and I drive around Newcastle dropping them to homes,” Ms Niemeyer said.
“Rent is the other big problem for people. We are talking to landlords on tenants’ behalf attempting to secure rent freezes.”
Darwich Sido spoke no English when he and his family of five arrived in Newcastle in 2016 after fleeing war-torn Syria. A tailor by trade, Mr Sido worked incredibly hard and established his own business two years later — Sido Tailor at Stockland Jesmond.
Despite the fact he’s a genuine multicultural success story, Mr Sido remains on a refugee visa and ineligible for government assistance. “It’s very difficult at the moment,” he said. “I open the business every day, but no customers are coming into the shopping centre. It’s the quietest it’s ever been.
“Finding money for rent is now extremely hard for me. I have to pay rent to the shopping centre and for my home.”
Mr Sido is attempting to negotiate a rental freeze for his home but says the shopping centre is not offering a lease reduction.
Federal Labor has called on the Morrison government to expand eligibility for financial assistance to temporary visa holders but has been repeatedly rebuffed. The message from the government has been blunt.
"You're very welcome here, however if you cannot support yourself over the next six months, then you should consider leaving the country," acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said last month.
Labour economist at the University of Melbourne, Professor Jeff Borland, speaking on ABC radio program The Economists, said temporary visa holders were in an extremely difficult position as their jobs had disappeared and it was often impossible for them to return home.
“The federal Treasurer has said they had to draw the line somewhere to avoid it being too expensive, but I think there’s an arguable case that it was appropriate to at least consider whether temporary visa holders should now be eligible for JobSeeker,” he said.
“I feel we should be treating temporary visa holders in the same way we would hope Australians would be treated if they were overseas in another country during this episode.”
Despite his own hardship, Mr Sido is trying to help the community tackle coronavirus by using his skills to make face masks while there’s a shortage of personal protective equipment.
“I’m now making masks for everybody’s safety, which I sell very cheaply,” he said. “I know I can’t get the financial assistance packages but a 50 per cent rent reduction would be a big help to my business.”