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AUSTRALIA: Asylum seekers denied the right to food

The right to food is a fundamental human right, however thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their homelands and seeking asylum in Australia are denied the right to food by the Australian Government. Under Australia¡¦s harsh refugee policies, thousands of asylum seekers are forced to live in the community on a Bridging Visa E (BVE) whilst they await the outcome of their Protection Visa Application, a visa that requires the determination of the refugee status of the applicant under section 36 of the Migration Act 1958. Bridging Visa E¡¦s deny asylum seekers the right to work, free or subsidized Government-sponsored medical services (Medicare), and access to income.

[Hunger Alert] AUSTRALIA: Asylum seekers denied the right to food
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ASIAN HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION - URGENT APPEALS PROGRAMME

28 April 2006

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HA-03-2006: AUSTRALIA: Asylum seekers denied the right to food
AUSTRALIA: Right to food; right to health; unjust immigration regulations for asylum seekers
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Dear friends,

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has received information from a local organization, the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC) (www.asrc.org.au), of the Australian Government¡¦s current refugee policies, which deny asylum seekers the right to food and right to health.

The right to food is a fundamental human right, however thousands of asylum seekers fleeing persecution in their homelands and seeking asylum in Australia are denied the right to food by the Australian Government. Under Australia¡¦s harsh refugee policies, thousands of asylum seekers are forced to live in the community on a Bridging Visa E (BVE) whilst they await the outcome of their Protection Visa Application, a visa that requires the determination of the refugee status of the applicant under section 36 of the Migration Act 1958. Bridging Visa E¡¦s deny asylum seekers the right to work, free or subsidized Government-sponsored medical services (Medicare), and access to income.

Due to their lack of income, asylum seekers are often unable to provide themselves with adequate food. The ASRC alone has been presented with many cases of asylum seekers, including children, suffering from malnutrition and hunger-related illnesses who are then also unable to seek assistance for hunger-related illnesses due to the denial of Medicare. Four such cases are mentioned below. All names have been withheld.

Urgent Appeals Desk - Hunger Alert
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)
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DETAILED INFORMATION:

Case 1

A mother from Burma, in Australia on a BVE, was living in a run-down house when she brought her three-year-old daughter who had scabies to the ASRC. The victim had had a rash and had been itching for 2 weeks. Scabies is well documented as a disease that is caused by poverty and malnutrition. The victim¡¦s mother was very worried and embarrassed but she was unable to buy washing powder or food as she has no income. The ASRC health program was able to give the victim treatment for the scabies as the victim¡¦s mother did not have any money to pay for it. However the services should have been provided under the State¡¦s international obligations such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICSEC and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.

Case 2

A six-year-old girl whose mother is from Russia and is on a BVE repeatedly presents at the ASRC health program with chest and ear infections. She is often lethargic, is underweight and her iron levels are borderline. The victim has been treated with antibiotics, multivitamins and encouraged to eat more. Her mother cannot afford enough food or meat or fresh vegetables, as she is not allowed to work and has no income. Thus, it is very difficult for the victim¡¦s weight to increase and her immune system to improve. With no Medicare the victim¡¦s mother is unable to take the victim to the doctor without having to pay over US$ 40 for each visit, so instead she travels a long way to bring her to the ASRC.

Case 3

A ten-year-old girl, who was born in Sri Lanka but has lived in Australia for five years with her parents and sister on a BVE, recently presented to the ASRC with stomach pains and no appetite. She is underweight and has intestinal worms. Her family has no money for worm treatment and cannot buy enough food or food of good quality so the victim just eats rice on most days. She also often has toothaches but could not go to the dentist because her family could not afford it. Other children from low income families in Australia can go to school dentists for free if they have a health care card but without Medicare it is not possible to get a health care card so the victim was ineligible for any free dental care.

Case 4

A mother from China who is living in Melbourne on a BVE with her husband and 2 young children presented at the ASRC health program with her two-year-old child. The victim was born in Australia and received his first vaccinations in the hospital with no problems, but when the victim¡¦s mother went to the local council to see the child and maternal health nurse for further vaccinations, she was refused them as she did not have a Medicare card. This put the victim at risk of childhood diseases like measles and caused a great deal of stress for his mother as she worried about his health. The national immunisation strategy states that all children in Australia are entitled to childhood vaccinations. The ASRC, on hearing of the case, were able to successfully advocate for him to receive his vaccinations.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:

According to the Australian Department of Immigration¡¦s own statistics at least one third of the 6700 asylum seekers seeking asylum in the community are on BE visas.

Asylum Seekers are forced into a life of poverty and left destitute, isolated and made to rely on charity for their survival. They would face starvation if not for the assistance of (mainly) non ¡V government funded NGO¡¦s. Many of the asylum seekers on these visas are families and these policies apply equally to children. This policy breaches Australia¡¦s obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The policy of placing certain asylum seekers on BVE¡¦s seeks simply to act as a deterrent and a punishment to people who seek asylum onshore in Australia.

Under the Migration Regulations of 1994, asylum seekers find themselves on Bridging Visa E¡¦s for one of the following reasons:
They have taken longer than 45 days to seek asylum upon arrival in Australia
They have sought the humanitarian intervention of the Minister for Immigration
They have been released from detention onto a bridging visa whilst their claim is being considered

The Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs (DIMA) places asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E¡¦s for these reasons despite the fact that the experiences of NGO¡¦s are:
That asylum seekers who do not apply within 45 days of arrival is due often to factors such as language barriers, isolation and poverty
That asylum seekers who seek the intervention of the Minister often do so because of issues to do with the welfare of their children or mental or physical issues
Asylum seekers released from detention often do so with serious health and mental health issues as a result of being in detention

The ASRC, an NGO in Melbourne that provides aid, health and advocacy services to asylum seekers, assists over one thousand asylum seekers on such visas. The ASRC experience has been that Bridging Visa E¡¦s have a devastating impact on the well-being of asylum seekers.

They have also found the following to be some of the consequences suffered by asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E¡¦s:
Children presenting to the health service with diseases often found only in developing countries such as rickets, malnutrition and anaemia due to poor diet or lack of food
Families coming to the ASRC seeking help because they are homeless and without access to any food
Pregnant women into their 7th or 8th month of their pregnancy with no access to medical care or having premature births or underweight babies due to poor health
Families being isolated and not linked into any NGO¡¦s because they have no income to access public transport
Families being unable to access legal advice and assistance to apply for asylum within the 45 days of arrival in Australia because they have no income or means to do so
Men presenting with serious health problems such as HIV and cancer with no access to medical care
Serious mental health issues such as depression due to being forced to live in abject poverty

SUGGESTED ACTION:

Please write to Australian members of Parliament, especially Amanda Vanstone, Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, urging them to amend the Migration Regulations of 1994 to abolish the 45 day rule and to abolish Bridging Visa E¡¦s. Furthermore, asylum seekers in the community seeking asylum and those released from detention must be placed on a Bridging Visa that guarantees the basic entitlements of the right to food, right to work, access to health care and an income during their refugee determination process and ministerial intervention process. Finally, in the interim, please also request that victims, suffering from malnutrition and illness due to their denial of rights, are provided with immediate food and health assistance by the State.

Suggested Letter:

Dear ____________

Re: AUSTRALIA: Asylum Seekers Denied the Right to Food

I am writing to express my concerns regarding the dire food and health situation that the majority of asylum seekers face while awaiting a decision on their Temporary Protection Visa. Upon entry into Australia, asylum seekers are given 45 days to apply for this type of visa. If the process is delayed, which can occur due to trauma or the lack of English of the applicant, they will be placed on a Bridging Visa E (BVE). In addition, asylum seekers released from detention or seeking ministerial humanitarian intervention for their asylum claims are also placed on Bridging Visa E¡¦s. I am recently informed that the Australian Government denies asylum seekers on Bridging Visa E¡¦s their rights to food, medical services and work. I am shocked that the Australian Government would cause such suffering in an attempt to deter asylum seekers, who are forced to flee their countries due to fear of death, torture, rape and other means of persecution, from pursuing asylum in Australia.
I have been informed of several cases where victims, mainly children, are underweight and ill. Among these cases are reports of a three-year-old girl of Burmese ethnicity suffering from scabies, a well documented disease caused by malnutrition. Another child, a ten-year-old girl from Sri Lanka who has lived in Australia for five years, was found to be severely undernourished and infested with intestinal worms. Her parents could not even afford the de-worming medication, and on most days, can only afford to provide her with rice for her meals. I was also informed of a six year-old girl whose mother is from Russia, who is often afflicted with chest and ear infections. She too is underweight and has borderline anaemia. Her mother complains that she cannot even afford to buy meat or fresh vegetables for her child. All of these children have suffered from hunger and hunger-related illnesses on account of their parents being denied access to employment and free healthcare, and other forms of assistance, on account of their BVE status.
The denial of Medicare can also clearly be seen in a case involving two Chinese asylum seekers and their Australian born, two-year-old son. After the child¡¦s birth, the boy received initial vaccinations at the hospital with no problems. However, upon visiting the local council to see the child and maternal health nurse for further vaccinations, the child was refused the additional shots because the family did not have a Medicare card. Without a Medicare card, asylum seekers in Australia do not have access to free health care or dental care, and cannot afford to bear the cost of private clinics because they are not allowed to work and receive no government financial assistance.
It is appalling to think that in a country as progressive as Australia, severe malnutrition and hunger related-illnesses exist today, and go untreated. According to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Australian Government has a responsibility to give refugees the same treatment as Australian nationals in regards to work rights, social security, rationing and housing. In accordance with the intent of the Refugee Convention and Australia¡¦s other human rights obligations under international law, asylum seekers awaiting refugee determination should not be denied their basic human rights and placed in poverty. In order to stop the erosion of these rights, I strongly urge you to take the following action:
1.Please amend the Migration Regulations of 1994 so that the 45 day rule is abolished, and so that the Bridging Visa E¡¦s are abolished. Asylum seekers in the community, and those released from detention, should be placed on a Bridging Visa that guarantees the basic entitlements of the right to work, right to food, access to healthcare and income during their refugee determination process and ministerial intervention process.
2.In the interim, please ensure that immediate food and healthcare assistance is provided to these victims.

I look forward to your intervention in this matter.

Yours sincerely,

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PLEASE SEND LETTERS TO:

The Hon. Amanda Vanstone
Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs
Level 13
100 King William Street
Adelaide SA 5000
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 7860
Fax: +61 2 6273 4144

PLEASE SEND COPIES TO:

1. The Hon John Howard
Prime Minister
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 7700
Fax: +61 2 6273 4100

2. The Hon Kim Beazely
Leader of the Opposition
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 4022
Fax: +61 2 6277 8495
Kim.Beazley.MP@aph.gov.au

3. Mr. Petro Georgiou MP
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 4419
Fax: +61 2 6277 4990
Email: P.Georgiou.MP@aph.gov.au

4. Mr. Tony Burke
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Parliament House
Canberra ACT 2600
AUSTRALIA
Tel: +61 2 6277 4548
Fax: +61 2 6277 8417
Email: Tony.Burke.MP@aph.gov.au

5. Mr. Jean Zeigler
UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food
c/o Mr. Carlos Villan Duran
Room 4-066, OHCHR, Palais Wilson,
Rue des Paquis 52, Geneva
SWITZERLAND
Tel: +41 22 917 9300
Fax: +41 22 9179010
Email: sect.hchr@unog.ch

6. Mr. Antonio Guterres
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Case Postale 2500
CH-1211 Geneve 2 Depot
SWITZERLAND

7. UNICEF Australia
P.O. Box A 2005
Sydney South
N.S.W. 1235
Fax: +61 2 9261 2844
Email: unicef@unicef.org.au

8. Mr. Jacob Egbert Doek
Chairperson
Committee on the Rights of the Child
OHCHR-UNOG
8-14 Avenue de la Paix
1211 Geneva 10
SWITZERLAND
Fax: +41 22 917 9022

Thank you.

Urgent Appeals Programme -- Hunger Alert
Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC)

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