“You do not belong”: Refugees cut off


Dozens of refugees have been denied Medicare rebates and Centrelink payments after two government departments failed to communicate with each other.

Advocates claim some affected refugees were left paying out of pocket for medical treatment – including psychiatric medication and postnatal care – or were evicted from their homes because they could not pay rent.

Those affected were suddenly cut off from entitled benefits by Services Australia, the government agency that administers Medicare and Centrelink, despite holding appropriate visas.

Southern Communities Advocacy, Legal and Education Services human rights lawyer Anna Copeland said she had recently helped 12 people affected by the issue and that some of those were without benefits for months.

“Very vulnerable people were denied what they had a right to because the departments couldn’t share info,” Ms Copeland said.

Both Services Australia and the Department of Home Affairs would not state why the problem occurred or if it would be fixed.

A Services Australia spokesperson claimed that data exchange between the agencies was working “consistent with policy” and that it was not a system issue.

“For visa holders to continue being eligible for Centrelink and Medicare, we rely on receiving up to date information about the status of their visas from the Department of Home Affairs.

“This includes if the visa is in the process of being renewed,” the spokesperson said.

Lawyer Anna Copeland sitting at a table
Lawyer Anna Copeland says the loss of benefits left her clients struggling to access healthcare and housing. Pic: Alex Di Rosso

Ms Copeland said people were not aware they had lost their benefits until they tried to buy medication or see a doctor.

A trusted source told Murdoch University student news site The Quenda multiple women had been unable to access Medicare rebates to pay for maternity care.

Another refugee, with severe mental health issues, had been without Medicare access for the past six months.

Services Australia did not comment on these cases.

Services Australia general manager Hank Jongen said he understood it was difficult for refugees who were already in a stressful and overwhelming situation to access government services.

Church-run aid organisation Asylum Seeker Hub refugee program coordinator Emily Nikoletti estimated her volunteers had met with 80 refugees who had lost their Medicare benefits.

“[They’re] unable to access basic healthcare,” Ms Nikoletti said.

“You don’t realise how valuable Medicare is until you don’t have it.”

Visa extensions not communicated

The loss of benefits affected refugees on the five-year Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) or the three-year Temporary Protection Visa (TPV).

Both temporary visas were issued by the Federal Department of Home Affairs and were designed to protect people who arrived in Australia without a visa but could not safely return home, and provided access to some government services, including Medicare.

SHEV or TPV visa holders must apply for a new visa from before their current one expires.

Under government regulations, Home Affairs automatically extends the current visa, so it is valid until the new one is processed.

However, advocates say refugees have been unable to access Medicare and Centrelink from the day their first visa expired.

The department did not answer questions about how many lawful SHEV and TPV holders have lost access to Centrelink or Medicare.

According to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, there are almost 20,000 refugees currently living on SHEVs and TPVs.

Visa holders with less than $5,000 in assets and an income less than $668.40, which is the JobSeeker rate, were also entitled to a receive an additional “top-up” benefit.

Legal aid group Welfare Rights and Advocacy Service lawyer Catherine Eagle, a specialist in Centrelink cases, said that this Special Benefit was “a payment of last resort.”

But she said in-kind support, such as being offered accommodation in a friend’s home, was counted as income and leads to some payments being reduced.

The $5,000 limit meant refugees who own a car are usually ineligible for support, she said.

In its 2022 election campaign, the Labor party committed to granting TPV and SHEV visa holders permanent residency.

A Home Affairs spokesperson said the government intends to meet that commitment but until then, people must continue to engage with the department to remain lawful.

“This ensures that TPV/SHEV holders continue to have access to work and study rights, as well as benefits such as Medicare and Centrelink, including Special Benefits payments,” a statement said.

Evicted and unable to find a home

One of Ms Copeland’s clients, Zoreh*, said she was disconnected from both Medicare and Centrelink for almost three months earlier this year.

Zoreh is a full-time carer for her adult son, who has serious mental health issues, and she has knee injuries requiring ongoing care.

Her only income is a Centrelink payment of about $750 per week.

She said she managed to buy her son’s medication without a rebate, but she was unable to afford any other medical treatment. Without Centrelink, she and her son were unable to pay rent and were eventually evicted.

“We were crying and we were so upset that we couldn’t find any other place,” Zoreh said through a translator.

“You feel that you do not belong anywhere, you have no identity, nothing.”

Zoreh and her son relied on support from friends until Ms Copeland helped them reconnect to benefits and receive back payments.

“We are struggling very hard to even survive,” Zoreh said.

But Ms Eagle said data sharing between departments should be straightforward.

“The powers that [Services Australia] has to data match with anyone, anytime, any place, are extensive,” she said.

“They should be able to quickly check whether [a] person still has a visa.”

Not an easy fix

A spokesperson for Economic Justice Australia, the peak body for lawyers working with the social security system, said the agency had been liaising with relevant government agencies for months.

EJA said it believed there had been a “partial resolution” to the problem.

A group of people standing in a grassy field
Green Senator Nick McKim spoke at a rally for refugess on temporary visas in September 2022. Supplied: Office of Senator McKim

Greens immigration spokesperson Senator Nick McKim said the issue showed that poor government administration disproportionately affects the most vulnerable members of society.

He said that temporary visas undermine a refugee’s place in society.

“It is totally unacceptable for anyone entitled to Medicare to have been denied it,” Senator McKim said.

“People have a right to income support and healthcare.”

Meanwhile, lawyers and support groups said they were helping affected refugees reconnect to Centrelink and Medicare, but the job was not an easy one.

Services Australia can backdate Special Benefit payments if the affected refugee contacts them within 13 weeks of being cut off. Medicare rebates can be backdated over any timeframe.

Ms Copeland said proving disconnected clients were eligible for benefits was “like walking through treacle”.

She said there was often confusion over which documents her clients needed.

Ms Nikoletti said it often took three months to reconnect her clients, although she was able to streamline the process down to six weeks in simple cases.

She said while individual Services Australia and Medicare staff were often sympathetic and helpful, the system was difficult for refugees to navigate.

“Getting to the right person is incredibly hard,” she said.

“Those people that know [how to fix the problem] aren’t readily accessible to clients that wander in off the street.”

Ms Nikoletti emphasised her clients should not have been disconnected from benefits to begin with.

“I would love a world where I don’t have a job because all this stuff works,” she said. Mr Jongen said the agency had specialists to help migrant communities connect with government services and provided information in multiple languages online and by phone.

“We know starting life in a new country can be a stressful and overwhelming time, particularly fo r refugees who are often leaving their home countries for complex reasons,” Mr Jongen said.

“We also appreciate the difficulties people face when they can’t readily access payments and services like Medicare and Special Benefit.”

Unknown numbers affected

Although dozens of refugees have been individually reconnected to benefits, Ms Eagle said she was concerned there could be hundreds more who never sought help.

“We only ever see the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

“You are talking to a pretty vulnerable cohort who could just think ‘Oh well, that’s it for me then’ [if they are cut off from benefits and] they’re not going to ask about the review system.” However, The Quenda understands that a Department of Home Affairs review found that, of those refugees currently waiting for their SHEV to be renewed, none are living on visas that have already expired.

Refugees promised permanent visas

In response to protests in September, Immigration Minister Andrew Giles promised refugees would be transferred to permanent visas as soon as possible.

Advocates agreed that doing away with temporary visas was the best solution.

“[Refugees] just want security,” Ms Nikoletti said.

“They’ve been waiting for ten years. They’ve well and truly done the waiting.”

Zoreh said life on a temporary visa was “emotionally and financially so hard” for her and her son.

“[I don’t have] the support I need to establish myself here,” she said.

“We don’t know what will happen in our future, we don’t know where we are heading.”


*Name changed to protect anonymity.