Not all asylum seekers are living in detention centres. Some are living in the Victorian community, in extremely difficult circumstances. They endure crushing poverty and debts, and rely on community organisations to survive.
Asylum seekers have limited or no right to work, and those eligible for income support receive only 89 per cent of the meagre Newstart allowance. That means living on less than $35 a day, which has to cover rent, food, transport, energy, water and phone bills.
Full-price utility bills are hard—if not impossible—to pay in these circumstances. People can’t adequately heat and cool their homes, cook for their families, and provide lighting for children’s homework.
Daliya, an asylum seeker from Libya supporting four children, faced this situation:
“Daliya speaks almost no English and is very shy and quite socially isolated. She also suffers from mental health issues and has survived past family violence. Daliya’s gas was disconnected by AGL in November 2013. This left her without a stove, heating or hot water for her young family.
While she had received several bills, her limited English meant she had not understood what was about to happen. Daliya also had no phone credit so she could not tell her case worker about the disconnection. She had to wait for one of the caseworker’s regular visits.
Daliya was referred to a financial counsellor, who contacted EWOV [the Energy and Water Ombudsman] and had the gas reconnected that night. Daliya agreed to pay AGL $20 a fortnight towards her outstanding account balance of around $550, while EWOV looked at her case.”
Daliya, like other asylum seekers, isn’t eligible for energy and water concessions, despite facing extreme need. Asylum seekers miss out on the year-round 17.5 per cent electricity discount, the 17.5 per cent winter gas discount, and the 50 per cent water discount. This makes bills much higher than they need to be, and can lead to disconnection.
Frustratingly, the hurdle for asylum seeker concessions is an administrative one. Because asylum seekers aren’t eligible for Health Care Cards, energy and water retailers can’t apply concession discounts (Health Care Cards are used to establish concession eligibility).
However, this hurdle can be overcome. The Victorian Government has developed a Public Transport Victoria (PTV) Asylum Seeker ID, which entitles people to the 50 per cent concession discount for train, bus and tram travel. The PTV Asylum Seeker ID is distinctive, clearly identifies the holder as an asylum seeker on a bridging visa, and could be added to the list of qualifying cards for energy and water concessions.
Industry and the community sector are united behind this move. VCOSS members like the Consumer Action Law Centre and the Financial and Consumer Rights Council have long advocated for asylum seeker energy and water concessions, along with asylum seeker advocates and energy and water retailers.
We urge the Victorian Government to plug the administrative gap in concessions access, and help an extremely vulnerable group of people to keep their families warm, the lights on and the water running.