AUSTRALIAN Catholic leaders have written to the Prime Minister pleading for help on behalf of the ones they see as being abandoned during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four bishops and a long list of religious leaders were among the 50 signatories to the letter, along with heads of groups like the St Vincent de Paul Society, Jesuit Refugee Service, Catholic Mission, and other social justice and welfare advocates.
They have written to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on behalf of asylum seekers and temporary visa holders excluded from COVID-19 relief measures.
One of the signatories, Justice and Peace promoter in Sydney archdiocese Fr Peter Smith said Australia was home to more than 1.5 million temporary visa holders.
“These women and men are members of our communities and congregations: they pray in our pews, work in our restaurants, farms, factories, aged-care homes, supermarkets, and NGOs, study in our schools and universities, and live in our neighbourhoods,” he said.
“And we have abandoned them to their fate.”
The Church leaders were speaking up for the temporary visa holders who were excluded from the Federal Government’s relief measures like JobSeeker and JobKeeper.
Jesuit Refugee Service Australia director Carolina Gottardo said in just two weeks JRS had delivered emergency food packages to more than 500 refugees, people seeking asylum and migrants in vulnerable situations who had lost jobs, had no safety net and could not go home .
“The demand for JRS’ services including emergency relief has also increased twofold,” Ms Gottardo said.
“The situation is desperate.
“Many of the women, children and men we support were already living in severely overcrowded dwellings.
“Now, as rental arrears build up and some landlords continue to threaten eviction, we are likely to see a surge of temporary visa holders in clusters of Western Sydney who are unable to self-isolate or practise social distancing.
“Our Federal Government’s exclusion of temporary visa holders from a basic temporary net is creating a situation in which people cannot protect themselves or the wider community from COVID-19.”
Australian Catholic Bishops’ Commission for Social Justice, Mission and Service chair Bishop Vincent Long referred to another vulnerable group.
“People who have been trafficked, victims of modern slavery, people seeking asylum, and women on temporary visas experiencing domestic violence are all excluded from support and access to Medicare and safe homes,” Bishop Long said.
“This is not who we want to be as a nation.
“We are really heartened to see the Tasmanian Government give $3 million to support migrant workers in their state.
“This is not just welcome financial support, it is an act of compassion and solidarity that recognises the vulnerability of these workers and the need to protect all people affected by COVID-19 for public health reasons.”
Catholic Religious Australia president Marist Brother Peter Carroll said “whilst the Australian Government has moved quickly to support many in our community in the face of the COVID-19 – and they should be applauded for doing so – these actions (in excluding many vulnerable people from relief entitlements) have shone a light on the millions in our community left to fend for themselves”.
“Action is needed now,” he said.
The letter highlighted imminent danger posed by the virus for asylum seekers being held in hotels and detention centres across Australia.
The signatories said that, given the circumstances in which they lived, this group could not meet required physical distancing measures and were vulnerable to guards and service providers entering and leaving the facility at will, and potentially carrying COVID-19.
They said everyone in the Australian community who was in hardship as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, including people seeking protection, must be given temporary access to a financial safety net, Medicare, and adequate shelter if they were homeless.
Mr Morrison, early in April, advised visa holders that if they could not support themselves they should return to their home countries.
Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge, on April 4, said “in line with changes being made for Australian citizens and permanent residents, most temporary visa holders with work rights will now be able to access their Australian superannuation to help support themselves during this crisis”.
“Temporary visa holders who are unable to support themselves under these arrangements over the next six months are strongly encouraged to return home,” he said.
Tasmania, South Australia, the ACT, Queensland and Victoria have announced support schemes to assist temporary visa holders, including international students, asylum seekers and working visa holders.