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Australian Human Rights Commission calls for action over 30,000 asylum seekers living in 'limbo'

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Australia
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ABC
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By political reporter Stephanie Borys

Key points:

  • People who arrived in Australia by boat before 2014 face tight restrictions on the right to remain and in accessing welfare

  • The AHRC has urged the Government to relax restrictions and remove the ban on asylum seekers gaining permanent residency

  • The Department of Home Affairs has not accepted the recommendations

The Department of Home Affairs has rejected dozens of recommendations made by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), aimed at improving the lives of tens of thousands of asylum seekers living in Australia.

There are roughly 30,000 people living in Australia that are not eligible for permanent residency, because they attempted to reach Australia by boat before 2014.

They are often referred to as the "legacy caseload".

Under rules aimed at deterring others from attempting to make such a trip, people who arrived by boat face tight restrictions on the right to remain in Australia and access to financial support and other welfare.

The AHRC has urged the Federal Government to relax those restrictions, and most critically, remove the ban on asylum seekers gaining permanent residency.

Human Rights Commissioner Edward Santow said they were seriously concerned about the situation many of these people find themselves in.

"We are increasingly worried about people in this group ... we are hearing more reports of people who simply can't afford to pay for medicine, can't necessarily afford accommodation, that sort of thing," he said.

Mr Santow said the AHRC had made a series of recommendations he felt would dramatically improve the lives of many.

"We think that there are some steps that the Government could take that would be relatively straightforward, that would provide protections against these people falling into poverty and homelessness," he said.

The recommendations include boosting mental health services, increasing welfare support and revising who is eligible for Centrelink payments.

"We ... have to be pragmatic," he said.

"People who are in desperate situations are much more likely to do desperate things."

The Department of Home Affairs has not accepted the recommendations.

It insisted income support was needs based and there were adequate mental health services already in place.

The department said the Government's measures upheld the integrity of the humanitarian program and deterred people smuggling.

'We should be allowed to stay permanently'

Reza Rostami was among 45 asylum seekers on a boat bound for Australia six years ago and has described the trip as the most trying four days of his life.

"We had just lost hope of life to be honest, everyone was just thinking that we were lost in the sea," he said.

"Everyone was waiting for when death would come to them."

Mr Rostami, his wife and two young daughters left Iran in 2013 because they feared persecution, and travelled to Indonesia to board a boat.

"On the fourth day, the boat was intercepted by an Australian Navy vessel and brought to Christmas Island," he said.

"I felt like I was born with a new life, it was a good feeling."

Mr Rostami took up studies in Australia and is now a research officer at the School of Psychiatry at UNSW Sydney.

But despite securing a job, Mr Rostami said he and his family had become increasingly worried about what their future holds under the current rules.

They are now on Safe Haven Enterprise visas, which are one of two types of temporary protection visas.

"My family and children don't know what will happen to us after five years," he said.

"The Australian Government has recognised that I have a legitimate claim to refugee status.

"For this reason we should be allowed to stay permanently."

'Human emergency'

The Asylum Seekers Centre in New South Wales provides support for people that are part of the legacy caseload, and CEO Frances Rush said the mental health of many was deteriorating.

"Some people have been in Australia waiting to have their claim for asylum to be processed for seven years," she said.

"It's a long time to be in limbo, a long time to live with the uncertainty and not knowing what's going to happen."

Ms Rush said a growing number of people were asking for financial support or access to crisis accommodation because they did not have enough money.

That is because the eligibility for support payments has been tightened, meaning many asylum seekers that used to receive income support are no longer entitled to it.

And Mr Santow said for those that are receiving income support, the amount is still too low.

"For a family of two parents and two kids, the Henderson Poverty Line says that a family needs $970 a week to survive," he said.

"The SRSS [Status Resolution Support Services] payment — if you are lucky enough to be on it — is $714 a week.

"So even the group within the 30,000 people in the legacy caseload that are receiving a payment, are receiving a payment that is below the poverty line."

Ms Rush has praised the Australian Human Rights Commission for raising concerns around welfare support.

"It sounds extreme to say it, but I think it does becomes a human emergency," she said.

Australian Broadcasting Corporation: © ABC