Asylum seekers are Australia's invisible homeless

Australia's Hidden Homeless, Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker ProjectWhile politicians search for islands to house 'boat people', asylum seekers living in the Australian community face an accommodation crisis of a different kind — homelessness.

Hard data on the problem is scarce because the Australian Bureau of Statistics doesn't track the number of homeless asylum seekers in the community. But refugee agencies across the country estimate that the rate of homelessness among in-community asylum seekers is extraordinarily high.

A spokesperson for the Refugee Claimants Support Centre in Queensland says between 60 and 70 per cent of the agency's clients 'need some sort of assistance with obtaining or maintaining accommodation'. Prabha Gulati, director of the Asylum Seekers Centre of NSW, estimates one in four asylum seekers her agency helps are 'homeless or in danger of imminent homelessness'.

A July 2009 survey found that 78 per cent of asylum seekers on the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme (ASAS) in Victoria met the government definition for homelessness.

Although some asylum seekers have slept on the streets, many have also experienced other forms of unsafe and insecure accommodation, such as crashing at friends' places, staying at boarding houses or sleeping at churches, temples and mosques. According to casework data from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, an individual or family seeking asylum will move an average of eight times in an attempt to source appropriate and sustainable accommodation.

With few rental references and complex visas, asylum seekers have trouble accessing the private rental market. They are also ineligible for most public housing and don't fit within the homelessness welfare system, which is designed to cater for people with different needs, such as substance dependence. And although asylum seekers are technically eligible for 'transitional' accommodation, they are frequently refused due to lack of income.

Even the Federal Government overlooks homeless asylum seekers. The Labor Government White Paper on homelessness, The Road Home, is supposed to set the strategic agenda for reducing homelessness in Australia for the next decade. Asylum seekers are not mentioned in the paper. Nor is there any legislative framework mandating housing for asylum seekers in Australia.

All these points are raised in Australia's Hidden Homeless, a new research project into the accommodation crisis among asylum seekers in the community. The report is the work of Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project (ASP) with financial backing from a charitable trust. Only a charity could have drawn attention to this issue because refugee agencies and church groups bear the burden of housing homeless asylum seekers. These agencies rely on donations and philanthropic organisations to keep afloat. Government funding is minimal or non-existent.

A good example is Sanctuary House, an accommodation facility in Melbourne for male asylum seekers at risk of homelessness. Dr Andrew Curtis, general manager of strategic development and sustainability at Baptcare, says 'we have no federal or state funding for this facility at all'.

In the UK, Sweden and Canada, housing for asylum seekers living in the community is government funded and managed through the country's immigration department or at a local level. Governments acknowledge that they have a legal and moral responsibility to provide services to asylum seekers claiming protection. Australia's Hidden Homeless quotes a spokesperson from the Swedish Migration Board:

As a signatory to the 1951 Convention, the government has a responsibility to ensure that people are mentally as strong as possible to consider their future in or outside Sweden ... if you've signed the Convention, then you have a responsibility not just to provide protection when and if this is determined, but during the determination process ... you need to give people a decent life while you are processing their claim ... and the lowest level is providing food and bed.

Australia has also signed the Convention, though you'd have trouble squeezing that quote out of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. At the moment, the political focus in our country is on 'boat people', detention centres and offshore processing. Asylum seekers who arrive by plane and live lawfully in the community are off the agenda.

Yet historically, plane arrivals make up the majority of asylum seekers. And providing housing to this group is much cheaper and simpler than building offshore processing centres for those coming by sea.

Caz Coleman, director of Hotham Mission ASP, says Australia's Hidden Homeless puts forward a cost-effective model 'with a per bed price of approximately $31.30 for a single asylum seeker living alone and less than $12 per day for asylum seekers living in shared housing'.

Every day, Australians face north and scan the horizon. Has another boat arrived? But if our politicians and journalists want to see asylum seekers living in poor conditions, they need to look closer to home. We have plenty of destitute asylum seekers right here, and they're being ignored.

Greg FoysterGreg Foyster is a freelance journalist who's written for The Age, The Big Issue, Crikey and New Matilda. Greg's website 

Topic tags: Greg Foyster, Australia's Hidden Homeless, asylum seekers, Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project



submit a comment

Existing comments

Illegal immigrants are NOT refugees.
Trent | 13 August 2010

The unborn who are killed for want of legal and material protection are the ultimate asylum seekers in our times. 100,000 killed a year,in Australia [55 million worldwide] maybe more, each a unique human person, who could not find asylum with the womb. Mothers are often abandoned in their critical hour of need and they are asylum seekers too, in people's hearts, seeking help in desperate situations. But I suppose the very VISIBLE asylum seekers on boats gain more publicity than the invisible asylum seekers in the womb. Both asylum seekers deserve respect but let us not forget the truly invisible ones - they are our brothers and sisters too.
Skye | 13 August 2010

When we have a major Australian party declaring that asylum seekers are a threat to our well-being (as the Opposition), we are dangerously aligning ourselves with the practices of Fascist regimes. The issues that Grey Foyster raises should be of concern to everyone.

The number of asylum seekers who arrived on our shores, or attempting to do so, does not in every way affect the lifely-hood of any of us, to view it as a threat further diminishes our standing as a civilised country.

It is timely to remember that this country was the dumping ground of society's misfits, refugees from an inhumane penal system, fortune hunters and genuine seekers of freedom. We're not that far removed from those who seek refuge in our big country.
Alex Njoo | 13 August 2010


Thank you for your wonderful post. You said what I should have said in the first place.
Trent | 13 August 2010

Thank you SKYE, you are speaking on behalf of the silent majority.
Ron Cini | 13 August 2010

Why do Skye, Trent and Ron expect us to ignore the plight of asylum speakers? Can't we speak out about both issues?

I, too, think the abortion toll is appalling and I will speak out against it just like Skye did. But I also think the way we treat asylum seekers is appalling and also needs to be addressed.

I don't think Jesus was selective in his compassion and I don't see why we should be.
Erik H | 13 August 2010

We should all be ashamed of the way we allow these people to be treated by government, but considering the little known fact that the Immigration Department does not even pay the fares of all refugees who have been granted visas to live here it does not surprise me.The lower North Shore Sanctuary Movement has raised thousands of dollars to bring people who have been granted visas but who have no means to get here-they are often women and children in camps in places like Dafur-when we would rather help them more than we do once they have arrived.If people who have refugee visas do not use the visas within a year they lapse and cannot be re-applied for.Perhaps we could all ask the candidates in our electorates to press for this dreadful inequity to be rectified.
Helen Walsh | 13 August 2010

There is not such thing in this country as an illegal immigrant because there is no offence in the migration act to charge anyone with if they don't have a visa and refugee applicants are most certainly not illegal immigrants.

Now matter how many times you want to whine "illegal" Trent it just ain't true.

And Skye, the unborn do not need housing.
Marilyn Shepherd | 14 August 2010

Trent, Skye - I share your concern for the unborn. I share the Church's respect for human life, from conception to natural death. However, don't let the plight of the unborn blind us to the desperate needs of other human beings. We can't do much for the victims of natural disaster in Haiti, Pakistan, China etc - here are people we can help! (And Greg was quite specifically writing about people who are CERTAINLY not illegal immigrants, people who arrive by plane with the 'right' papers).
Joan Seymour Albion, Vic. | 14 August 2010

There are tens of thousands of Australian citizens who are also homeless. It is those people that I am more worried about.
Peter | 17 August 2010

Why aren't you able to give a figure on the rate instead of a percentage? What happened to "charity starts at home"?
Irish | 09 August 2017


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up