Do refugees really receive higher welfare benefits than pensioners?

The short answer is no.

A series of emails have circulated in recent years asserting that refugees settling in Australia are entitled to higher rates of social security payment than other Australian residents, including pensioners. The emails also often claim that refugees receive free 'gifts' in the form of household items and even houses.

However, as is explained in this updated Parliamentary Library Background Note, such claims are completely wrong. What's more, the original emails on which many of the Australian emails are based refer (again, falsely) to arrangements in Canada and have nothing to do with Australia.

As highlighted in the Background Note, the information in the Australian emails appears to have originated from emails that began to circulate in Canada in 2004. These were a response to a media report about plans to settle hundreds of African refugees in smaller Canadian cities. The article described the amount of financial assistance that would be provided to the refugees by the Canadian Government. This led a reader to incorrectly assume that the refugees would be receiving benefits at twice the rate of Canadian age pensioners. 

Based on this misunderstanding the reader is thought to have then circulated an email condemning the level of benefits available to refugees in Canada compared to that available to pensioners. The claims made in this email were subsequently published as a letter to the editor in the Toronto Star and circulated widely by email throughout Canada. The claims then began to appear in emails and letters to the editor in other countries such as the United States and Australia, with the names of those countries used in substitute for Canada.

 On this basis alone, the information in the emails can be regarded as wrong and, in the words of former Howard Government Minister, Mal Brough, sent 'straight to the trash can'.

So, what kinds of assistance are refugees entitled to in Australia?

The first point that needs to be understood is that, having been granted permanent residency, refugees have the same entitlements as all other permanent residents. There is no such thing as special refugee payments or special rates of payment.

For example, a single refugee receiving Newstart Allowance (unemployment benefits) and sharing rented accommodation would currently receive $573.27 per fortnight (comprised of Newstart Allowance of $492.60 and Rent Assistance of $80.67). This is exactly the same amount that would be received by any other permanent resident of Australia receiving Newstart Allowance.

Refugees are exempted from the standard waiting period that applies to migrants seeking to access social security payments. But again, this doesn't entitle them to higher rates of payment. They are just able to access assistance earlier than other migrants, given that they generally arrive in Australia with no means of support.
Refugees also receive short-term assistance from the Australian Government under the Humanitarian Settlement Services program, aimed at helping them settle effectively once they have received permanent residency. This is basically a case management program that focuses on connecting refugees with mainstream services (for example, accommodation, schools).

For those awaiting a decision on their case for refugee status in the community (either on a bridging visa or in Community Detention), the Government also provides a range of supports through NGOs such as the Australian Red Cross. This includes access to health care and other social services. Financial assistance is also provided but this is paid at a lower rate than that available to Australian residents. For example, those on bridging visas receive 89 per cent of a payment known as Special Benefit and 89 per cent of Rent Assistance. This would currently amount to $438.41 (the usual adult rate for Special Benefit) and $71.79 (Rent Assistance) per fortnight.

 Finally, those held in Immigration Detention Centres, do not receive social security payments or percentages of such payments. They are entitled to a range of services, including access to health care, religious facilities, television, library services and other educational and entertainment facilities, clothes, footwear, toiletries, hygiene products and other personal items. Detainees also have access to the income allowance program, through which they are allocated points that can be exchanged for small items at a shop located within the Immigration Detention Centre.

There is further detail on all of the above in the Background Note.

It should be noted that the assistance to refugees and asylum seekers described in the Background Note is longstanding and has bi-partisan support. Such support is consistent with the overall obligation and commitment by Australia to provide protection for refugees and resolve refugee situations.


Flagpost is a blog on current issues of interest to members of the Australian Parliament

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