September 12, 2013
Every day Kim Asher receives phone calls from people she has never met. One afternoon, a man called to say his pregnant wife and two children had just moved into their house with only a blanket and the clothes on their back.
”By midnight we had organised two queen-sized beds for them, two sofas, a rug, a microwave, a washing machine, a fridge … bedding and some clothes,” she said.
They were among thousands of asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas since the then Gillard government introduced its ”no advantage” policy in August last year. They had no right to work and received a stipend equal to 89 per cent of the lowest dole payment.
While couples with children can apply to a Department of Immigration case worker for their household needs, single people, couples with unborn children and children over 17 are not entitled to them.
Ms Asher learnt from asylum-seeker friends that many were sleeping on the floor in cold, unfurnished houses. She posted a message on her Facebook profile asking friends for mattresses they could donate and a van to deliver them. The message gained momentum after comedian Catherine Deveny posted it on her Twitter profile. ”My inbox exploded,” Ms Asher said.
She now co-ordinates donations full time via three Facebook pages, including ”Bridging the Gaps”, which she co-founded, and ”Welcome Home”, which was started by lawyer Jessie Taylor. Her mobile phone number is circulated among asylum-seeker communities.
Ms Asher has helped to organise thousands of donations for more than 70 households in the past year. ”People in the groups often go out to their schools and mothers’ groups … The circle of influence gets wider and wider,” she said.
One family offered to donate all their furniture before they moved interstate. ”They’re champing at the bit to do what they can to help. A lot of people have said to me, ‘I need to do something to help because I’m so angry and upset about how inhumane we’ve become’,” she said.
The rising demand for assistance is stretching charities.
Asylum Seeker Resource Centre spokeswoman Pamela Curr said the centre, which receives no funding, provided lunch to 150 asylum seekers a day and had been forced to restrict its services. The Red Cross and AMES, which were contracted by the Department of Immigration to assist people on bridging visas, are also stretched.
Ms Curr said Facebook donation groups were a positive alternative but ultimately unsustainable. ”The numbers are so great … That’s why we need to get organisations to do it, so we can do it efficiently and don’t exhaust the donors.”
Hazara asylum seeker Zekria Zekria moved into a house near Dandenong last month. Welcome to Australia has helped him furnish the house, where he lives with four others: ‘‘I’m really glad …Every day they call me to see what I need. I appreciate them,’’ he said.
Mr Zekria, 28, fled Afghanistan in March after his vegetable and flour crops were twice destroyed by a group of Pashtuns, most of whom were armed with guns: ‘‘The Kuchi camped there every year, every summer. They destroyed all the grass, the vegetables, flour, all the agriculture of Behsood.’’
Under the no-advantage policy, Mr Zekria will have to wait up to five years before his claim for asylum will be processed. He spends his days at a nearby library, reading the newspaper and books on economics, and going to the gym.
‘‘If I had freedom to work and study I may make a decision [about my future],’’ he said. ‘‘But right now we are in a suspension. We decide nothing. We can do nothing.’’