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Refugees Dying, Fearing Poverty As Refugee Week Marked In Australia

Government policy changes "like sitting on a timebomb", one asylum seeker said.

Last Friday, Fariborz K was found dead in the Australian-run regional processing centre on Nauru. He was 26. Having escaped Iran, following torture and being held captive in his home country as a young boy, the asylum seeker found himself in the miserable Australian centre on the tiny Pacific island. After five years there, suffering severe trauma and post-traumatic stress, he ended his life.

Fariborz K was the third person to die by suicide in the Australian facility on Nauru. He is at least the 12th person to die in Australia's maligned offshore detention camps, according to Monash University's Australian Border Deaths Database.  Fariborz died just days before Australia marked Refugee Week, as politicians spoke of the positive impact that refugees have on the nation, while glossing over the fact 250 people remain in the Nauru facility and hundreds more languish on Manus Island with little prospect for resettlement.

Nauru (TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the formerly-shuttered Manus and Nauru centres were reopened by the Gillard Labor government in 2012, then expanded under Kevin Rudd in 2013, they have been roundly savaged by both domestic and international refugee advocates and human rights organisations, including the United Nations and Amnesty International.

Some refugees, like Fariborz, have been there almost as long as the centres have been open, with limited options or hope for a change.

The U.S. resettlement deal has helped only around 290 refugees in the two years since it was announced; the government is blocking offers from New Zealand to take some refugees; and the only other options are returning to dangerous home countries like Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar, or remaining in limbo in the Pacific centres indefinitely.

This stalemate was behind independent MP Andrew Wilkie introducing his private member's bill into the parliament on Monday. The member for Denison's  Refugee Protection Bill 2018 outlined an ambitious system of processing centres to be established through the region -- the Asia-Pacific Asylum Seeker Solution, or APASS --  where asylum seekers would register, be cared for, and lodge a preference for which country they wish to be resettled in.

The system would differ from Australia's criticised offshore detention and regional processing policy, by not allowing for mandatory indefinite detention and providing free legal advice, accommodation and financial support to asylum seekers.

"For too long the community has been misled into believing the choice is one between defending our borders from invaders or having open borders. But there was always another way, that of a genuine regional framework based on decency and the rule of law," Wilkie said.

"Let's not forget that 12 people have now died in Australia's offshore detention centres, all avoidable. But it's never too late to right a wrong."

The SRSS refugee protest outside parliament on Monday (supplied)

The bill also specifically outlined it would "dismantle Australia's current offshore immigration detention policies as they are abhorrent, cruel and in clear breach of refugee and international human rights law", and bring those on Manus and Nauru to Australia.

Outside the parliament, as Wilkie introduced his bill, representatives from refugee advocacy and charity groups walked through Parliament House, meeting with MPs to plead for more help for asylum seekers. Cuts to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) welfare payment, which supports those living in Australia while waiting for their refugee status to be approved, are feared to affect up to 12,500 people.

More stringent eligiblity criteria will mean some lose their payments, while others have already lost their payments after their circumstances changed, such as starting study or work.

The SRSS payment -- set at 89 percent of the Newstart rate, or around $250 a week in total -- as well as housing support, counselling and caseworkers, will be cut for many asylum seekers. Refugee advocates and charities have united under the 'Roof Over My Head' campaign, calling on the government to reverse the changes.

Representatives from the Salvation Army, Homelessness Australia, St Vincent de Paul and the Australian Council of Social Services all called on the parliament to wind back the plan to cut support.

"It is very basic support to keep people afloat while waiting for their application to be resolved. Most haven't had work rights on some of these visas, now suddenly they're told to get a job and cut off services," Marcella Brassett, of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, told ten daily.

"Students are cut off if enrolled in full-time study. The government is cutting them off and not giving anyone any time."

"This is putting around 12,500 people at risk of homelessness. We don't know when the full cuts are coming into effect, but people are already being cut off."

Brassett spoke to ten daily from Canberra, after the delegation meeting MPs including Labor's immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann, Andrew Giles, Nick McKim and Susan Templeman. The delegation delivered a petition with 12,000 signatures to the parliament, calling for the cuts to be reversed.

"At the ASRC, we've seen hundreds of people at risk, people who cant afford food, no medical care, no medicine for complex health issues. We're having to think about how to support people. We're buying people sleeping bags," she said.

She called it a looming "humanitarian crisis", and feared refugee agencies and charities would not be able to support all those cut off from the payment. Michael, an asylum seeker who relied on SRSS, said he feared for his future if he was cut off the payment.

"We've been warned about SRSS being taken from us. It's like sitting on a timebomb. We could end up as homeless," he told ten daily.

"It's very difficult for us to find jobs. We need help, to upskill [asylum seekers] to the Australian standard. We're waiting for help."

On Tuesday, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a report into global trends in forced displacement and refugees.

It found 68.5 million people were displaced by war, violence and persecution in 2017, a new high for the fifth year in a row. Strife in the Congo, South Sudan and Myanmar led the number.

Worldwide, one in every 110 people is someone who is displaced.

The UNHCR said new solutions to caring for refugees was needed, and expressed optimism for plans in progress around the world.

Meanwhile, Australia keeps its refugees -- some from those very same countries cited by the UNHCR -- in camps on out-of-the-way Pacific islands. While Australia shrugs off responsibility for refugees dying, saying responsibility lay with Nauru or Papua New Guinea, the world is crying out for new fixes to refugee crises.

"Solutions for all this remained in short supply," the UNHCR said in its report.

In Australia, solutions are all but ignored.