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Asylum seekers and income management



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June 6, 2013

Asylum seekers and income management By Luke Buckmaster

Image source: Australian Human Rights Commission

The Shadow Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, recently proposed that certain asylum seekers living in the community should be required to work on community projects in exchange for food and accommodation vouchers. The vouchers would be instead of cash, which Mr Morrison said could be used to pay 'people smugglers debts'. The Immigration Minister, Brendan O'Connor indicated that the idea was one 'worth considering'.

While media reports and commentary have suggested a relationship between the 'work for vouchers' proposal and income management, there are actually some significant differences between the two.

Income management refers to a policy under which a percentage of the income support payments of certain people are set aside to be spent only on ‘priority goods and services’ such as food, housing, clothing, education and health care.

The first important difference between income management and 'work for vouchers' is that while the former is applied to Australian Government income support payments, asylum seekers do not receive such payments. Income support payments are generally only paid to Australian residents. Instead, the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) provides financial assistance to asylum seekers living in the community (those with a bridging visa) under the Asylum Seeker Assistance (ASA) Scheme. The ASA Scheme is administered by the Australian Red Cross under contract to DIAC. Assistance is paid at the rate of 89% of the Department of Human Services (DHS) Special Benefit (which is generally paid at the same rate as Newstart Allowance) and (where eligible) 89% of DHS Rent Assistance. Currently, a single person with no children in shared rental accommodation receiving assistance under the ASA Scheme may be eligible for a maximum of $515 per fortnight.

If the 'work for vouchers' scheme was to be brought within the framework of DHS income support, it could open up the possibility of access by asylum seekers to various protections, including appeals mechanisms under Australia's income support arrangements and complaints under the Racial Discrimination Act (for a discussion about the relationship between income management and the Racial Discrimination Act, see this Parliamentary Library research paper).

Second, while income management generally quarantines around 50% of a person's income support, 'work for vouchers' seems to be a proposal for 100% quarantining. Therefore, while those on income management have discretion over how they spend (usually) half of their payments, it seems that those on 'work for vouchers' would have no discretion at all.

Third, most people on income management are under the Participation/Parenting model in the Northern Territory. Participation/Parenting income management has the objective of providing support to payment recipients to encourage participation in work, education and training. It is targeted at those whose length of stay on particular payments is deemed to put them at risk of disengagement from economic and social participation. People who meet the criteria for this form of income management may apply for an exemption on the basis of evidence of a range of activities deemed to qualify as participation. Important differences between this and 'work for vouchers' would include:

 asylum seekers would already be participating in community work (albeit not necessarily voluntarily) and  asylum seekers on bridging visas who arrived unauthorised by boat after 13 August 2012 are not entitled to participate in the labour market or most education and training activities.

Overall, Participation/Parenting income management is strongly tied to the Government's 'Stronger Futures in the Northern Territory' policy (previously known as the 'Northern Territory Emergency Response' or the 'Intervention'), a key objective of which is to bring some stability to communities experiencing significant social problems. The 'work for vouchers' proposal's quite different rationale is to ensure payments are not diverted to pay people smuggler debts.

Fourth, each of the most recent expansions of income management have been targeted at specific individuals in crisis situations, such as where a person has been deemed by a DHS social worker as vulnerable to financial crisis or where a child is at risk of neglect. Examples of this include Place-based Income Management and income management in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands (South Australia) and Ngaanyatjarra Lands (NG Lands) and Laverton Shire (Western Australia). An asylum seekers 'work for vouchers' form of income management would represent a significant change in the trajectory of income management in that it would appear to be focused on all receiving assistance, rather than just those in crisis situations.

In general, most asylum seekers don't tend to face the sorts of problems that income management is intended to address. Indeed, evidence suggests that most refugees receive intensive support at first but have high levels of economic and social participation over time.