Dozens of asylum seekers living in Australia were summoned to a morning meeting with the Immigration Department on Monday as the government moves to cut off welfare payments worth $200 per fortnight and restrict access to government housing.
The crackdown may eventually affect around 400 asylum seekers who came from the offshore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru for medical treatment in Australia.
The Immigration minister Peter Dutton said around 60 people would receive letters imminently. Most are single men.
The asylum seekers were all transported to Australian hospitals for medical care but were always expected to return to the offshore centres when their treatment was complete.
“We want people to go [back] voluntarily,” Mr Dutton told ABC Radio on Monday.
“They won’t be staying in Australia, they will be going back to Nauru,” the minister said, speaking about the larger group of 400. “If … they’ve received their medical assistance and they’re refusing to go back to Nauru then they will not be provided with the assistance.”
Many of the people affected are now engaged in a legal fight to remain in Australia.
The Human Rights Law Centre, which represents many of the asylum seekers, said its clients were receiving letters and being summoned for interviews with the Immigration department.
“These cases have a very simple proposition: our clients would suffer serious harm if they were returned,” the Centre’s executive director Hugh de Kretser told SBS World News.
A number of asylum seekers were summoned to a 9am meeting with Immigration on Monday, the HRLC said, where they are expecting to be told they will have their income support payments cut immediately.
They may also be told they have three weeks to find a home before they are evicted from government housing, the HRLC said.
Sydney’s The Daily Telegraph has been given examples of asylum seekers “exploiting” the system, including a case where a man fell off gym equipment and another with a “stomach complaint”. Another asylum seeker reportedly spent money on prostitutes.
“The government doesn’t bring people here from Nauru and Manus because they’ve got a headache, they bring them here because they require urgent medical treatment,” Mr de Krester said.
“We have women who have been sexually assaulted on Nauru, we have kids who have been so traumatised by what they’ve seen in immigration detention on Nauru that they require urgent psychiatric help, we’ve got men who’ve been bashed on Manus Island who suffered serious head injuries who’ve been brought to Australia.”
Refugee advocates say the government is trying to make the asylum seekers “destitute” to force them back to Manus Island and Nauru.
Labor’s immigration spokesman Shayne Neumann said the opposition would look for ways to block the welfare cut-off.
Mr Dutton said that was a “backflip” from Labor and a departure from bipartisanism on immigration matters.
He said it would “send a bad signal” to let the group stay in Australia, creating the appearance of a medical route into the country that could “encourage self-harming” in detention centres.
SBS World News has contacted the Immigration department with a series of questions.