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Young asylum seekers at school speak out about their lives in community detention in Brisbane

No options: “It is safe and there is a lot of opportunity, but we do not have a right to go for it.”

A GROUP of five, young asylum seekers ask that they not be identified.

The reason is simple. They, and their families fear deportation if they speak out against how they are treated under Australia’s immigration system.

Each of the five are at school, live with families, siblings or friends in community detention in Brisbane, waiting they hope, to start life afresh.

Their bright, young faces disguise what they have been through – persecution, violence and war trauma in their countries of origin, and deprivation, depression and despair during years spent in offshore detention in Nauru.

“We have already spent six years in Nauru, so we come here and wait – almost three years in Australia – and we are still waiting for a visa,” Bashir (not his real name), said.

Transferred from offshore detention to Australia for medical treatment, each young asylum seeker is now living in a house, in the community, but still in detention.

They appreciate they are now physically safe, but the conditions under which they live would shock most Australians.

Organisations that work with asylum seekers have described the system under which they are kept as inhumane and unfair.

“We don’t have a right to work, we don’t have a right to study in Australia,” Dilshad (not her real name) said.

“It is safe and there is a lot of opportunity, but we do not have a right to go for it.”

“In some ways it is harder here,” Azar (not her real name) said.

“We can see all these students going to university and they have a good life but even though I study hard and have good results I can’t go to uni.

“After high school finishes I have to go home again and wait for a visa.”

“There is always a difference between us (asylum seekers) and them (Australian students),” Esfir (not her real name) said.

Meagre living

Asylum seekers in community detention are allocated accommodation and a meagre living allowance.

Azar said she receives a small amount per fortnight. Her mother receives $480 a fortnight to cover other household expenses and support Azar’s brother.

This living allowance has to cover food, transport costs and utility bills and is the only allowance they can receive, as they do not have working rights.

It is left to charitable organisations including the Catholic Church and the support of the community to make ends meet.

The school they attend provides uniforms, laptops and supplies, even Go Cards so they can travel to school.

These young asylum seekers do not receive Medicare and can only access doctors or hospital care approved by the International Health and Medical Services – IHMS.

“We can’t even buy a sim card under our name, because we would need a Medicare card (for identification), ” Azar said.

Only when an asylum seeker has been found to be a genuine refugee and received a protection visa, can they receive the same benefits as an Australian citizen including access to Centrelink and Medicare.

Even travel outside their immediate area must be approved by a case worker.

One of the asylum seekers explained they were refused an opportunity to complete a certificate course because they were refused permission to leave Brisbane on a school excursion.

“I feel like I am still in detention,” Azar said. “It is like a beautiful plate of summer fruit, but you are handcuffed and told you are not allowed to touch it.”

“We don’t want money, we don’t want Centrelink or someone to pay for our rent.

“The only thing we want is human rights.”

Teachers at their school confirm that asylum seekers are among the hardest working students.

Despite English as a second language, their grades are good. They have goals and aspirations but are being held back by a system that cannot find a place for them.

“These are the people you want working for you because they have so many skills and they want to work, but they are being denied that,” one teacher explained.

“Most Australians will not know that this is happening.

“We would only ask that young people who have done nothing wrong, been declared refugees in another country (Nauru), but the Australian government will not accept them and keeps them in prison in community detention.”

Each of these young asylum seekers say their harsh experiences in life means they suffer trauma.

They have each witnessed fellow asylum seekers take their own lives.

“Yes,” they say all together. “In front of our own eyes.”

“23 years old, 22 years old, 18 years old. They were thinking about having a new life, but they end up in a grave, ” Ester (not her real name) said.

“I wish I could take another boat and go out of here. My human rights have been taken away,” Azar said.

“For us, dying in the ocean or staying in community detention – it is the same thing,” Dilshad said.

Their teachers say a “culture of fear” extends to the way they are treated by Australian officials.

“Even case workers operate under confidentiality agreements and are scared of losing their jobs, by making more “humane” decisions about asylum seeker welfare.”

“We just have to be their advocates because they can’t be advocates for themselves,” one teacher said.

Some of the female asylum seekers said their home privacy had been breached by case workers who had their own key and could visit at any time.

Another said she had been denied seeing a psychologist since being in Australia.

Instead she was shuffled from GP to GP.

There were even concerns that lawyers assigned to their cases failed to represent their best interests.

“The whole system – lawyer, doctor, case manager – they all know we don’t have a right to even complain about anything so they abuse our rights, our dignity and our name,” Azar said.

“I have so many experiences of this in Australia.”

Year of Welcome

Community detention was set up more than a decade ago for vulnerable asylum seekers to be able to spend time in the community while they waited for complex paperwork to be processed.

It was never intended as anything but a short-term measure as the number of asylum seekers increased.

At the start of this year, the Refuge Council of Australia (RCOA), designated 2020 as “Year of Welcome”, but for hundreds, perhaps thousands of asylum seekers in detention or community detention nothing could be further from the truth.

RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power called for action to make “Welcome” a reality, and to change the message Australia sends to people who seek safety, in spite of the hostile political context.

“We can’t simply wait for our elected representatives to change the cruel policies affecting refugees and people seeking asylum. All of us need to work together to make Australia a more welcoming country,” he said earlier this year.

“People who are forced to flee their homes and seek safety are some of the most resilient, courageous people you could meet. Our country is enriched by having them in our communities.”

Interestingly, Deloitte Access Economics commissioned a study last year that found if Australia’s annual humanitarian resettlement program was gradually increased over a five-year period to 44,000 people per year, this would boost the nation’s economy and sustain ‘on average an additional 35,000 full-time equivalent jobs’ annually for the next 50 years.

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