The legal and welfare sectors have been left aghast at the federal government's snap decision to cut income and housing support for vulnerable asylum seekers living in Australia.
Up to 100 people, formerly housed on Manus Island and Nauru but transported to Australia for medical treatment due to the lack of facilities on the islands, have been informed that their welfare payments will cease immediately on Monday, and they will have just three weeks to find private accommodation of their own. The move, which came without warning on Monday and was spruiked by immigration minister Peter Dutton as a way of cutting off a "scam", has been slammed by refugee advocates as a ham-fisted attempt to force those people back to Manus and Nauru.
The asylum seekers, who have used legal challenges to fight their deportation back to Manurs or Nauru, will have work rights but will face huge challenges in finding paid work within the three-week window before they become homeless. Dutton told News Corp that each of these asylum seekers cost taxpayers "up to $120,000 a year" taking into account fortnightly income support of $300 a fortnight, plus costs for housing, utilities and healthcare, and tried to sell the brutal changes as a cost-cutting measure -- but failed to mention it costs Australia $573,000 to keep each asylum seeker on Manus and Nauru.
"This latest decision shows cruelty and contempt for people seeking safety," said Dr John Falzon, CEO of the St Vincent de Paul Society National Council.
"It is a shameful to cast people onto the street and make them destitute in a cynical attempt to force them to return to the countries from which they have fled. This latest development is designed to inflict suffering and anguish on one group of people, but in doing so it is also creating a nastier, meaner Australia."
Earlier on Monday, Dutton said in a 2GB radio interview "of course it is" when asked if it was "unAustralian" for lawyers to work to block these asylum seekers from being deported back to the islands. The minister also criticised the "tricky legal moves" to News Corp.
President of the Law Council of Australia, Fiona McLeod SC, slammed Dutton for his "extraordinary" attack on lawyers representing asylum seekers.
"It is true that the legal rights of individuals can be an inconvenience to Government, so attacking the legal professionals who work pro bono to defend those rights is truly extraordinary," she said in a statement.
"There is nothing more Australian than ensuring people are subject to the rule of law and have their legal rights protected. The Australian legal system reflects fundamental Australian values, including the right to have your case heard, the right to not be arbitrarily detained and the right not to be subjected to cruel or inhumane treatment.
"We have a long and proud history of politicians understanding the importance of showing respect for the independence of our legal system. Today's comments represent an extraordinary break with that history."
UNICEF Australia urged the government to reconsider its policy.
"As a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Australian government has an obligation to ensure all actions concerning children consider their best interests and provide them with the protection and care that is necessary for their well-being," said UNICEF Australia's director of policy and advocacy, Amy Lamoin.
"These are not reasonable, necessary, or proportionate measures for the Government to take. It is well known that punitive measures are not an effective way to influence positive behaviour - these measures, which remove such critical support, will only increase the risk of negative outcomes like destitution and homelessness."
"This group of people was transferred to Australia to receive medical treatment after falling ill or being subjected to physical or sexual violence – particularly the women. They should not be returned to a place where they were harmed or where their health, safety, and wellbeing cannot be guaranteed."
Save The Children, an agency which formerly worked with families and children on Nauru, also criticised the government's moves to pressure asylum seekers to leave Australia.
"The cuts of financial assistance to these innocent and vulnerable people who have been living peacefully in our community – some for years - are shocking, unnecessarily cruel and serve no legitimate purpose," said Save the Children Australia CEO Paul Ronalds.
"We are greatly concerned that children and families we worked with on Nauru may be among those impacted by these changes in the future, which could leave them destitute and forced to either return to harsh and dangerous conditions in Nauru or return to places they've fled for fear of persecution."
"It is astonishing that the government would use these tactics to pressure people to leave behind their lives in Australia and place their children back in harm's way."