Homestays and happy endings: community placement for asylum seekers

Since November last year ‘boat people’ have been leaving immigration detention and, in a couple of weeks, many will be living in Australian homes. The program, entitled the Community Placement Network (CPN), is based on an earlier model for international students.  It will be jointly administered by the Department of Immigration (DIAC), the Australian Homestay Network (AHN) and the Australian Red Cross (ARC), which is responsible for the community settlement of asylum seekers.

AHN’s official website explains how the arrangement will work. CPN will “facilitate a supportive homestay arrangement between a member of the public (host) and an eligible asylum seeker (guest) leaving immigration detention.” The program runs for a six-week period during which the host is expected to provide a “clean, safe and properly furnished bedroom for their guest inclusive of a bed, wardrobe, chair, suitable light and heating/cooling.” Meals are not part of the facilitated arrangement and can be negotiated by both parties.

Not much else is definitively known about the CPN scheme. It has been poorly advertised by the government and, predictably, sparsely covered in the mainstream media. This is particularly frustrating because the program relies on the good will and active participation of the Australian public: of public servants, of suburban families, and of university students at places like the ANU. Compassionate members of the public understand their key role in this program; the larger the program will be, the more potential it will have to catalyze historic changes in refugee and asylum seeker rights in this country.

It is important that the CPN scheme is part of a much broader cost cutting operation in asylum seeker management. A recent Asylum Seeker Resource Center (ASRC) report states that the government spent $160 – $850 per person per night (at a gross annual total of $772 million) in 2011 to keep detention centers running. In this scheme, recipients themselves will fork out $120 – $140 per week for lodging (and extra for food and utilities) from existing fortnightly assistance payments (equivalent to 89% of the Centrelink rate) allowing the government to forego substantial additional costs incurred for the provision of transitional crisis accommodation for BVE holders.

While the government has been keen to highlight its ability to substantially slash these costs rather than emphasize the potential benefits of the scheme to asylum seekers and citizens, the latter is where its enduring value lies. On a practical level, homestays will make the community resettlement process much easier. Living in a local household will provide the guest with a valuable community link. More often than not the link will be fundamental in helping the asylum seeker orientate themselves with the city, find permanent accommodation and some form of employment. Expectedly, finding long-term housing and employment is a difficult proposition for temporary visa holders who also happen to be, for the most part, non-English speakers. Indeed, the homestay will provide the guest with a supportive environment to speak the language regularly.

But beyond these tangible benefits, the CPN scheme provides a remarkable opportunity for this country to move beyond many longstanding myths about asylum seekers and reframe future debates on the issue. For too long ‘boat people’ have been deliberately kept hidden from view in remote and inaccessible detention centers whilst being misrepresented and demonized by the political system and a passive and uncritical mainstream media. While Bridging Visa E has brought IMAs into the community, they are still living inconspicuously, away from the public eye.

But through homestays, asylum seekers will, for the first time, rely directly on members of the Australian public who will be partly responsible for their wellbeing. Citizens and residents, for whom ‘boat people’ was an abstract and misunderstood concept will now be brought face to face with the stories, struggles, and on-going vulnerabilities of asylum seekers whilst housing them as guests in their own personal and intimate spaces. The re-educative potential of such intimate contact should not be underestimated, especially on the scale that it could take place. This interaction could potentially galvanize thousands of asylum seeker apologists outside of the leftist activist minority in big cities across Australia.

Of course there will be logistical and operational obstacles to the CPN scheme. Language barriers may become frustrating, cultural differences and long standing psychosocial issues may surface, and the prospect of leaving a successful homestay placement after six weeks will be painfully difficult for both parties.  In turn, it may actually serve to further isolate and even endanger this already vulnerable population. Nevertheless, its worth a try.

Ten years ago, to think of ‘boat people’ living outside of detention centers was absurd. We’ve turned that page, if only until Abbott is elected. The possibilities are immense, but only if members of the public are well informed, understand its benefits , and are willing to participate.

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