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Between the Department of Immigration and a hard place

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For three-year-old Sanara, justice is a big word and an even bigger concept. In the past six months Sanara's mother and grandmother have both attempted suicide and her grandmother has recently been diagnosed with a secondary cancer. 

Her family has no income, cannot access Medicare and relies on a few charities to provide food, clothing and housing. Each family member receives $33 per week from Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project, to spend on basic necessities.

Sanara and her family are stuck between systems. Their care seems to be no-one's responsibility. When Sanara's mother was admitted to hospital for the second time, the hospital staffer responded by saying, 'this is an immigration matter, not ours'. Yet when a Department of Immigration official heard Sanara's story she accused the family of using the threat of suicide as a way of manipulating the Minister for Immigration.

Justice for Sanara's family has become a point of debate. For some justice demands the removal of the family back to their homeland. For others it demands that it be given the chance to make a home in Australia. For a few it demands that Sanara and her family receive health care and basic services in order to help them to accept the reality that they must return to their country of origin.

For Sanara it is relatively simple. Whatever the outcome of her immigration status, she wants food in her belly more than once a day, a house that is safe and secure, and for her mother and grandmother to get the help they need today. But none of her desires is granted.

Raimond Gaita has claimed that justice must be founded on a recognition of our common humanity and the understanding that every human life is precious. He argues that the application should incorporate a space of listening that treats everyone with respect.

This view of justice has interesting implications for asylum seekers and former asylum seekers in Australia. Certainly it argues that Sanara and her family are not justly treated. Not only the deprivation of an income and of adequate health care, nor just the poverty of the situation or the distress of the family, but also their deeper deprivation of identity, of dignity, and of common humanity, show that they are being unjustly treated.

Is this fair? Does fairness apply only to those who have progressed to a certain point vis-a-vie their status in the eyes of the political system? Is it fair to allow a child of three to live in long term destitution in Australia, to withhold from her family the health care they require because they do not have a permanent status in this country? Is it just to allow Sanara and her family to live lawfully in the Australian community, but to exclude them from access to basic life essentials, food, housing and income?

Some would appeal to American philosopher, John Rawls, to say that it would be just. They draw boundaries that sharply delineate between those who are 'in' and to whom justice and fairness applies, and those who are 'out' and to whom justice and fairness does not. Might it be more humane to look to a model that provides a minimum standard to all who lawfully reside in our community?

Late last year the Department of Immigration released a draft paper that examined the basic conditions for asylum seekers in Australia. It focused on the denial of permission to work for asylum seekers at various stages of their protection application process. It proposed some promising changes.

Under these changes, Sanara's family would have permission to work and therefore to access Medicare. However, Sanara's father would receive no employment support, nor would he be eligible for income support if he could not find employment. This is bittersweet news for Sanara's family. They would be offered an opportunity but denied the resources that would enable them to take it. The destitution they face would be perpetuated.

If this situation persists under the changes, children like Sanara will continue to suffer from what could be seen as state-sponsored neglect. They must have access to resources if they are to care responsibly for their child.

Among the 4000 current or former asylum seekers who live in Australia lawfully and in destitution are hundreds of children. It would not be impossible to provide adequate food, housing and income support for this group. Many families would not require ongoing support. Others would require only employment support to help them generate a family income.

This need could be met by our current infrastructure. But it would require listening to and respecting the common humanity of all those within our midst.

Post script: After five months of advocacy Sanara and her family were finally accepted into the government funded Community Care Pilot. However, many more families remain vulnerable in the community without access to an income and appropriate healthcare.


Caz ColemanCaz Coleman is the Project Director of the Hotham Mission Asylum Seeker Project. She acknowledges the support of the Cranlana Programme for providing the space to reflect on issues of justice.


Images by Viv Mehes, Staying Strong Series from the exhibition 'Made in Australia' 2008.

Topic tags: Caz Coleman, sanara, department of immigration, justice, human rights



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I thought things had changed since Howard went.

Gavan | 06 February 2009  

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