Coronavirus recession puts thousands of refugees and asylum seekers at risk of job loss, homelessness

boat at Christmas IslandThe Refugee Council of Australia has looked at the impact of the coronavirus-led recession on refugees and asylum seekers. The Refugee Council says 19,000 are at risk of losing their jobs and 14,000 could end up homeless. Advocates are calling on the Federal Government to extend JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments to this group.

Hamed Allahyari is worried for the migrant workers he recently had to stand down due to coronavirus. He runs a Persian-food café and restaurant in Melbourne’s west, and is witnessing the dire plight refugees and asylum seekers are facing because of the COVID-19-led recession. His social enterprise café, Sunshine Café and Salamatea, had allowed some of them to gain experience and build their confidence to find other jobs.

Now, because of extended lockdowns in Melbourne introduced to stop the spread of the virus, his business is suffering losses and he cannot give them shifts. “I couldn’t afford to pay staff their wages,” says Mr Allahyari, who in 2012 migrated to Australia from Iran and now holds a temporary visa. The impact of the recession on refugees and asylum seekers, who are mostly employed in low-income and insecure jobs, may be underestimated in official figures.

A new report commissioned by the Refugee Council of Australia estimates that almost 19,000 refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas will lose their jobs because of the current recession. Asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas and refugees who have been granted temporary protection visas are at a huge risk if they lose their jobs. They are not eligible for welfare support such as the JobSeeker and JobKeeper payments.

Mr Allahyari says with no income coming in, three of his workers are on the brink of homelessness and relying on food vouchers to get by. “One of the people working for me almost became homeless because he couldn’t pay rent,” Mr Allahyari says. “He [was working five days a week with me, but with coronavirus [first wave in March], I couldn’t give him five days, so I gave him two days [work].

“Then, with the second lockdown, I couldn’t even give that two days [work]. “He [the worker] was going to go to Red Cross in Darwin to support him. Because he lost his hope. It’s very difficult. But it’s not only him [in that situation].” ‘


Resturant keeper
Hamed Allahyari believes refugees and asylum seekers should at least be given temporary support during the COVID-19 crisis.(Supplied)

Those working in hospitality worst hit

Out of the total population of refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas, about 61,662 people were estimated to have been employed before the coronavirus recession. “Based on these estimates, at least 18,807 refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas are projected to lose their jobs in the coronavirus recession,” the report said. “This represents an increase in the unemployment rate for this cohort from 19.3 per cent to 41.8 per cent.”

For those that remain employed, weekly wages could fall by an average of $90 per week, with 92 per cent of these workers earning less than the minimum wage.The coronavirus-related job and income losses for temporary humanitarian migrants is worst in the accommodation and food-services sector.

The reports uggests that pre-COVID, this sector employed 11,394 people, but post the crisis it will dive to 4,501 — a loss of 6,893 jobs. Mr Allahyari believes that at the very least, these people should be given temporary support during the COVID-19 crisis, while they cannot work. “You need a place to live — a roof over your head,” he says. “Some days they live with friends or other families, but it’s difficult because people want social distancing and don’t want to share their room with anyone else.

“How are they going to continue to survive? Because Mr Allahyari’s employees are awaiting their permanent visa status, they don’t qualify for government payments.


Jobkeeper is making life easier for people who can’t work at this time, but it’s so different for people who can’t get this support. The coronavirus-related job and income losses for temporary humanitarian migrants are worst in the accommodation and food services sector.

As more become homeless, economic and health costs rise

The flow-on effects of refugees and asylum seekers who become unemployed are immense.

When they have no jobs, and live below the poverty line, they are at high risk of poor health and homelessness. The report projects increased hospital admissions for mental health conditions, heart attack or stroke, injury and drug overdose, self-harm and other socioeconomic factors could cost state and territory governments an additional $23.4 million per year.

As NSW and Victoria host over 80 per cent of all refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas, these states will shoulder over $19 million of the additional cost burden. And the coronavirus recession is also expected to push up the homelessness rate among refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas. The report projects it to increase from 7.6 per cent to 12 per cent — a total of almost 14,000 people.

This will cost governments an additional $181 million per year in health, justice, social and other services, the report said, with Victoria and NSW sharing over $150 million of this projected increase. In Sydney’s west, another asylum seeker from Iran, Sara, is facing the threat of homelessness (ABC News interviewed her in Farsi and agreed to not identify her real name).

In 2013, Sara travelled by boat from Iran to Indonesia and then Australia, with her son and daughter, seeking asylum. She is still awaiting an interview for her visa application, saying she cannot go back to Iran because she at risk for being a devout Christian. Sara is 61 years old, has no access to Centrelink, and has had Medicare temporarily cut off until she reapplies (she said it expired and because of previous shutdowns she had to reapply online). Sara was doing temporary cleaning work before coronavirus hit.


boat at Christmas Island
Sara travelled by boat from Iran to Indonesia and then Australia, with her son and daughter.(Ray Murray: Audience submitted)

She had also sublet two of her rooms to students, but two weeks ago they moved out, leaving her unable to pay her rent and bills. She now risks eviction. “Coronavirus has made our already difficult situation far worse,” she said. Right now, I’ve not paid three months’ rent, so they [the landlord] took my bond. “At the end of this month I need to pay $3000 rent or face eviction.”

Government urged to support refugees during COVID-19

The Refugee Council of Australia chief executive Paul Power said the report’s findings were an indictment of the Federal Government’s decision to exclude refugees and people seeking asylum from COVID-19-related support. “This short-sighted decision by the Federal Government is taking a serious toll on the health and safety of people who have sought safety in Australia,” he said.

Mr Power said as the research showed, the Government’s decision would create much greater strain on already overstretched health and crisis services, at considerable cost to taxpayers and the community. “The government is knowingly pushing people into poverty, homelessness and destitution, at great social and financial cost,” Mr Power said.

“We once again urge the government to rethink this policy and extend a safety net, based on need not on visa status, to all people living in Australia who cannot survive without it.”

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