Effects of pandemic hit refugee students most

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every country around the world. According to statistics from the World Health Organisation, 216 countries have confirmed cases of COVID-19, out of the 251 countries/territories recognised by the United Nations. Each government has reacted to the pandemic within its borders in its own way, combining public health information and data on the disease with political strategy in response to it.

The information we receive from our governments, including the messaging around whether this pandemic is a health crisis or an economic crisis, determines our perceptions about how Australia should react to it and the likelihood of our ability to recover from it. These messages can subsequently engender confidence or fear, optimism or pessimism.

The ACTU recently released figures showing that more than 1 million people in Australia are out of work. This figure is considered to be artificially low, with more than 3.5 million people relying on JobKeeper to be employed and the underemployment rate currently sitting at 18.7 per cent (ACTU -August 13).

According to the ACTU President, Michele O’Neil, “These (unemployment) figures show that Australia is on track – as predicted by the Government’s own department – to reach 10 per cent by the end of the year”.

Hidden within these economic statistics of the COVID-19 pandemic is the effect it is having on our refugees, asylum seekers and international students. Those who held jobs prior to the pandemic were often in precarious employment, or in industries that were highly affected by COVID restrictions and shutdowns. Many now have no access to work and depending upon the type of Visa they hold, are also unable to access Medicare, the PBS and any financial support.

New research from the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) reveals the enormous public cost of excluding refugees on temporary visas and people seeking asylum from public support during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, “COVID-19 and humanitarian migrants on temporary visas: assessing the public costs”, outlines the impacts that the “coronavirus recession” is having on refugees and people seeking asylum – and the staggering social and economic costs of excluding them from government support at this time.

Key findings from the report, written by researcher John Van Kooy of Monash University, include:

  • Nearly 19 000 refugees and people seeking asylum will lose their jobs as a result of the current economic turndown;
  • Unemployment rates in this group are projected to more than double, from 19.3 per cent to 41.per cent;
  • For those that remain employed, weekly wages could fall by an average of $90 per week, with 92per cent of workers earning less than the minimum wage;
  • Those in this group, who lose their employment, leave the labour force or live below the poverty line and are at high risk of poor health and homelessness, with a projected 12per cent rise in homelessness.

Further to these shocking statistics uncovered in the report, are the numbers of children being directly impacted by Australian Government policy.

There are currently around 16,000 children in families seeking protection in Australia, who are living with parents and carers ineligible for JobSeeker or JobKeeper payments. Many families seeking asylum have been left in a situation where they have no work, no income, and no way out other than reliance on other family members, friends or charity to survive. Demand on emergency relief at asylum seeker agencies has increased threefold, with families seeking help to provide children with food, medicines and financial relief for rent, board and educational costs.

School closures and stages of remote learning in response to the pandemic have uncovered the disproportionate disadvantage being felt by children in these communities. The inability to access digital learning, have enough money for adequate food, nutrition, health care and child care, meant that the impact was more severe for these families and a greater overall cost was felt by those who could not work. Disrupted learning and a focus on surviving will have far-reaching consequences, with many unable to re-enter the workforce due to their current circumstances and the state of the Australian economy.

Unfortunately, many of the shortfalls that Federation and other unions identified as affecting refugee, asylum seeker and temporary Visa holders remain; and are causing continued, severe financial distress.

Federation recognises that the COVID-19 pandemic is foremost a health crisis, with economic and social consequences that directly impact upon our most disadvantaged children. The disproportionate effects being felt by this cohort are in turn likely to increase and further entrench inequality.

Education is the best policy for tackling inequality – especially if the school is appropriately resourced and fully funded for student need. Teachers and school-based programs are too often the only source of food, educational supplies and technology for many of our disadvantaged children, a safe-haven to them during hard times.

Many teachers and principals are deeply concerned about the current situation faced by families within their school communities. The deliberate exclusion of some in our society should not be occurring; however, the deliberate exclusion of children from the bare necessities in life is a disgrace – a shameful indictment on the Australian government and one that must be urgently addressed.

The RCOA has organised the “No Child Left Behind Campaign” in response to this unfolding crisis. COVID-19 does not discriminate, and neither should access to a safety net or assistance during this time. There must be support for all who need it, regardless of their visa status; and the No Child Left Behind campaign is working to have these vulnerable children receive the support they desperately need.

The No Child Left Behind Campaign will mark Child Protection Week (6-12 September), with a National Week of Solidarity. Schools, educators, parents and other concerned Australians across the country can get involved by participating in school activities that raise awareness about refugee and asylum seekers, their stories and journeys, as well as call upon our political leaders to do the right thing.

Federation endorses the Refugee Council of Australia’s No Child Left Behind Campaign.

Social justice is union business and access and equity for our students, as well as social inclusion for all in our school communities, will always be at the forefront of what we do.

Further information about the No Child Left Behind Campaign, school resources and access to the Joint Statement of Support for refugees and asylum seekers can be accessed here.