This Refugee Had Started A Successful Small Business Selling Persian Food. Then The Coronavirus Hit.
Labor has called on the government to ensure temporary visa holders in Australia — including refugees and asylum seekers — can access financial support in the pandemic.
Things were going well for Arad Nik when the coronavirus outbreak changed everything.
He had fled his native Iran in 2012, after being jailed and tortured over his advocacy for an ethnic minority. In Australia, he was detained for months, and then released without work rights. He could no longer practice microbiology, although he’d headed a hospital lab in Iran and had over 15 years experience.
But in 2017, Australia recognised him as a refugee and gave him a five-year safe haven enterprise visa (SHEV). Then living in Perth, he started a business, Persia’s Pantry, cooking and supplying cafes and stores with organic and vegan Persian delicacies like eggplant chutney and Persian Love Dates, a combination of organic dates, cardamom, sesame, cinnamon and rosewater. He sold his goods at food markets, and delivered online orders.
The business was going “beautifully”, 42-year-old Nik told BuzzFeed News. But he left Perth, due to a medical condition that needed a cooler climate and an SHEV requirement that he spend 3.5 years in a regional area before he can get a permanent visa.
Two months ago, Nik moved to Hobart, where he hoped to replicate his success. (Hobart, like most places in Australia outside major cities, is classed as a regional area under the SHEV rules). He was in talks to start selling at a weekend market in Hobart, and two stores and a cafe began to stock his treats.
Now, with the coronavirus spreading across Australia, the markets are closed, and Nik is not earning anything from his business. But he still has to pay rent and bills.
Temporary visa holders like Nik are not normally entitled to government welfare payments, which are paid to citizens and residents. But two weeks ago, Nik applied for the "special benefit" — an equivalent to the JobSeeker payment, which a handful of temporary visa categories can access if they're in severe financial hardship for reasons beyond their control.
Nik has not heard anything yet. "At the moment it's a very hard time for me," he said.
Still, he is in a better position than many of his asylum seeker friends, some of whom are still appealing decisions refusing them refugee status. Many are on bridging visas, and are not able to access any financial support at all.
"This [coronavirus] situation affects all people living in Australia," Nik said. "It doesn’t differentiate between refugees or Australian citizens."
The Labor opposition has called on the government to ensure that temporary visa holders in Australia are financially supported during the coronavirus crisis, calling it the "right decision for public health".
But despite announcing billions of dollars in stimulus and support packages this month, the government has not taken action to extend the safety net to refugees and asylum seekers on temporary visas.
"It is critical to the health of all Australians that we make sure people can get testing and afford to self-isolate and get medical care if required — the virus doesn’t check people’s visa status," shadow minister for families and social services Linda Burney said in a statement.
"We do not want to see the perverse predicament where temporary visa holders who lose work because of coronavirus are unable to get tested, can’t afford to self-isolate, get pushed into high risk situations or become destitute."
The government has broad powers under the stimulus legislation passed earlier this month to adjust the rules around the social security system, which could be used to extend support to temporary visa holders.
Burney and shadow home affairs minister Kristina Keneally have written to counterparts in the government to say all people in Australia, irrespective of their visa status, should be able to access healthcare and other support to self-isolate.
Saeed*, a 32-year-old asylum seeker from Iran living in Brisbane, is not able to apply for any Centrelink support at all.
When he arrived in Australia in 2012, he was hoping to start working as an engineer, the same job he had in Iran. But he was detained, and then released without work rights.
He got the right to work in late-2014, but could not find a job. He said his temporary visa, sometimes just six months in length, has always been a "big obstacle" to his efforts to find a job. No matter what field — IT, engineering, hospitality or fitness — employers worried that they would train him up and then he would have to leave.
Saeed only had his first refugee status interview in 2018. He was rejected, and since then has been navigating complex laws and bureaucracies to appeal the decision. He had been receiving a fortnightly $520 payment given to asylum seekers while their status is being resolved, but in mid-2019 he was cut off from the payment as the government drastically narrowed eligibility.
Since then, he has had to rely on help from his brother in Melbourne, friends and assistance from the Red Cross to pay his weekly rent of $150 and survive.
But the coronavirus has made it even more difficult to make ends meet. His brother and friends who were supporting him were driving Uber. "As soon as this happened, they stopped working for Uber because it is really dangerous to be dealing with lots of people in a day,” he said.
"I try to lock myself at home because that’s the only thing I have now. If I lose that one, what should I do?" he said. "I hope Centrelink can take a look around and see what’s going on in people’s lives. All this pressure, it has lots of side effects."
If he cannot pay rent and afford food and other necessities, Saeed says the future does not look good.
"I'm really stressed," he said. "I don't know what to do."
* A pseudonym to prevent prejudice to his protection visa application.