A Sanctuary for homeless asylum seekers

A Sanctuary for homeless asylum seekers

“They arrested me, accused me of working for the Tamil Tigers and I could not escape. They continuously tortured me until I passed out”.

Kevin* describes the ordeals he faced in Sri Lanka that led to him seeking safety in Australia. He was only 14 years old when he was arrested, kept in a cell the size of a small cupboard and repeatedly physically and psychologically tortured. His father, who was arrested along with him, was shot and killed in front of him. Kevin’s mother sold their house in order to pay for his freedom to ensure he did not face the same fate.

Kevin’s journey to Australia on a small fishing boat took over 20 days, many of which were spent without food or water. When he arrived he was held in offshore immigration detention and then detained on the mainland before eventually being released on a bridging visa to live in the community while his protection claim continued to be processed.

Like many asylum seekers living in the Australian community on bridging visas, Kevin has been waiting years for his case to be resolved. During this time Kevin has been haunted by the memories of his detention along with his loss of family and the impacts of torture. As a result of this, his mental health deteriorated, he became homeless and he attempted to take his own life.

Baptcare Sanctuary has since been able to assist Kevin, by providing transitional accommodation along with casework support, pastoral care and links to other professional and community support services.

Sanctuary was opened in Brunswick in 2008 in response to the growing impact of homelessness on asylum seekers in the community and was then expanded with the opening of a Preston site in 2012. The program houses up to 77 asylum seekers who have little or no income and who have faced homelessness whilst awaiting the outcome of their protection visa application.

Residents of Sanctuary have their own room and share common areas where they are able to socialise, participate in classes and activities run by volunteers and access on-site caseworkers. Food is provided through a volunteer run foodbank program and residents cook for themselves and each other in shared kitchens. A number of residents work and learn in the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre Catering Service which operates out of the Brunswick Sanctuary site.

While at Sanctuary, Kevin has participated in on site art workshops and has been able to have his work published and displayed in galleries. He has also been able to study tertiary qualifications in aged and community care and he regularly volunteers at a local homelessness charity, providing food for the homeless. He wants to get well and be given a protection visa so he can work and assist others in Australia, especially those suffering from mental illness as he says he can understand their struggles.

Sanctuary does not receive any government funding and is reliant on support from donors and from volunteers to operate. Hundreds of asylum seekers like Kevin have lived at Sanctuary. People who desperately want to become productive members of the community but who suffer homelessness, destitution, stress and mental health issues due to delays in immigration processing, inadequate supports and harsh government policies such as the denial of the right to work.

Each resident’s journey to Sanctuary is different, but residents typically have histories of torture and trauma often followed by prolonged periods of immigration detention and then homelessness. Sanctuary cannot resolve all of the issues faced by residents arising from the complex and challenging personal circumstances that led to them seeking asylum, or the uncertainty of the outcome of their protection application, but it does assist with the physical and emotional needs of the residents and supports them to participate in the community in various ways, while awaiting the outcome of their protection application.

Independent research on the impact of Sanctuary’s activities and services on the lives of the residents indicates significant positive outcomes for residents in terms of wellbeing, independence and social participation. Physical and mental health improves with secure living conditions, increased personal space, regular meals and casework support. One resident says, “There are people of different characters and cultures here at Sanctuary. We all live together as a family. We cook and eat together like brothers and share our experiences from different cultures.”

The need for Sanctuary’s services is far greater than the current capacity.  Sanctuary receives referrals from partner agencies, who report more than a 500% increase in need over the past two years due to asylum seekers not having the right to work and/or not being eligible to receive any government income support.

Baptcare is aiming to double the number of asylum seekers assisted each year. An employment program is being launched to empower asylum seekers to overcome barriers to work through classes, workshops, mentoring and work experience placements. This includes partnering with Baptist community social enterprises such as cafes to provide training and employment.

If you are interested in provide practical or financial support to help prepare asylum seekers for their future, please contact Baptcare’s Housing and Homelessness Manager, Leonie Walker, on (03) 8480 9006 or email sanctuary@baptcare.org.au

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