Religions for Peace Australia has met on several occasions with leaders of many faith communities in Australia to ascertain the state of affairs with regard to the welfare of all during this time of Coronavirus with lockdown, loss of employment, loss of income and quarantine restrictions. The the outcome of these meetings is reported, along with recommendations for the welfare of overseas students, Temporary Protection Visa holders and asylum seekers, all of whom have fallen through the gaps in the welfare provided by government organisations. Several recommendations are made to the Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure.
Friday, 22nd May, 2020
Hon. Alan Tudge, M.P.
Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure,
Parliament of Australia,
We hope you, your family, your staff and their families are well at this time of health and economic crises.
We thank you and the Prime Minister, the Federal Government, politicians and their Departments for all the work people are doing at this time and in planning for our country’s present and future.
We also note that I, together with two other executive members, met you and Anthony Moat, your then advisor, some two years ago to discuss issues which arose out of our Religions for Peace Australia audit on Religion and Social Cohesion in Australia: An Overview of Multifaith Activity. We also note that at a later date we had an email from Minister Coleman where he stated he was expecting the Australian Multicultural Council to engage with multifaith and interfaith matters and with groups such as ours. It is, unfortunately, difficult to argue that this has happened.
Early into the COVID-19 crisis (March 20th), Religions for Peace Australia initiated its first Australia-wide network meeting. Since then we have drawn senior interfaith leaders from all Australian States and Territories together for four Zoom meetings. We know that the helpful Professor Sev Ozdowzki has been informing you of our deliberations. However, this time we would like to write to you directly.
The aim of Religions for Peace Australia’s Australia-wide COVID-19 meetings was three-fold. Firstly, being the only Australia-wide multifaith network, the meetings were to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on religious communities and vulnerable groups as many such persons are of Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist backgrounds. Secondly, to monitor our country’s social cohesion in the short and long term. Thirdly, to inform others, including Federal and State Governments, other agencies and other religious leaders of concerning patterns and suggesting courses of action. Not unsurprisingly we note our COVID-19 Australia wide network is broadening and strengthening.
We have attached two informative papers regarding religious and welfare matters during this COVID-19 time. The first is by Dr Brian Adams, who is the Director of the Centre for Interfaith and Cultural Dialogue, Griffith University, Brisbane, an affiliate of Religions for Peace Australia, who called a meeting of faith leaders of communities throughout Queensland, the Queensland Ministry of Multicultural Affairs and other government agencies, Queensland Health and Metro South Health. The other is from the meeting with the Victorian Multicultural Commission and the Faith Communities Council of Victoria that Religions for Peace Australia was asked to initiate and chair.
Before stating some of the issues that our Religions for Peace Australia network wishes to raise with you, I would like to draw your attention to international COVID-19 meetings that I, as Chair of Religions for Peace Australia and Deputy Moderator of the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace with its 21 member nations, have attended online.
Part of this have been both the Religions for Peace Australia’s recent partnership in New York of Religions for Peace International and UNICEF, and the recent links with the UNESCO Chair in Bioethics and its webinars on the COVID-19 crisis.
One Comment and Five Issues
Firstly, the comment is that in Australia over a decade or so there have been issues with the regulation of some of the newer universities/institutes and Registered Training Organisations (RTO). Regarding the issues that we have identified, these are 1) some institutes and RTOs’ true motives for establishing educational businesses, 2) some overseas students’ (OSS) true motives for study in Australia, 3) poor student attendance at such educational establishments 4) underpayment and payment of wages in cash to such students. In addition, this underpayment and lack of superannuation payments to staff also includes some temporary working visa (TPV) people. We note successive governments both at Federal and State levels have not brought these issues under control. So, at this time of the COVID-19 crisis it is morally and ethically inappropriate to have some overseas students, and TPV people living in destitution or near destitution in Australia.
Next to the issues: during this COVID crisis some universities have come to the assistance of overseas students (for example Deakin University is the most generous of all Victorian universities). On the other hand, we hear of private institutes having no welfare funds to assist their students nor indeed an interest in assisting them. We also hear in various states of several instances of institutes inappropriately pressuring overseas students to pay fees.
Secondly, many overseas students and TPV holders along with Asylum Seekers are, for example, not able to get work, nor able to go home due to no flights and now insufficient funds for a flight.
Also, the Religions for Peace Australia network has observed that there has not been a large-scale consular program to repatriate overseas students and temporary working visa people who do not have funds to stay in Australia. The Federal Government, State Governments and some universities (but not all) have given some money – however, this will be insufficient, given how long we now expect work to be reduced for the general public, TPV people and overseas students in Australia.
Thirdly, some religious communities are disproportionately funding welfare for overseas students and TPV people as the Federal and State Government money is slow to get to people or the money is, as we know, insufficient. For example, a Sikh State leader said the relatively newer Sikh community in Victoria (53,000 in 2016) is spending about $100,000 each month of their own money on food for people in need. Also, a Hindu community leader stated they sold two properties to fund their welfare activities. Two weeks ago, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists in Victoria had not received any Government money nor emergency welfare funding from the Red Cross, yet we hear some religious communities have money but no applications. Also, the National Zakat Foundation and the Australia Islamic Welfare fund has had to greatly reduce amounts it gives people due to the large increase in demand.
Fourthly, many overseas students, TPV holders and asylum seekers are now becoming destitute. So, in this time of need they naturally go to their religious communities to seek help. Also, our multifaith representatives/affiliates, particularly in Queensland and Victoria, have noted people do not know where to go or have to wait weeks for money. Anecdotally, we have heard of the Sikh attitude, ‘better to die than beg…’ There are settlers from India who think that if they apply for Government funding, it will affect their permanent residency applications. Others are scared of being converted if they go to a Christian group so they seek assistance from their own cultural/faith organisations.
Currently in Victoria we hear the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh communities cannot assist all as they have insufficient funds or have run out of funds. Last week, some five million dollars was released by the Victorian Government for multicultural communities in need. This is good news but again this will not be sufficient to assist overseas students, TPV holders nor asylum seekers who cannot go home. This issue seems to be more significant in the larger states, which have more temporary visa holders and larger numbers of overseas students.
Finally, several states in our network have observed there is a structural disconnect between where Federal / State Government money and other religious communities’ assistance for overseas students, TPV holders and asylum seekers is being placed and where many people culturally and religiously feel comfortable at a time of personal vulnerability to go to seek help i.e. from their Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities.
The main recommendations from the Religions for Peace Australia network is that religious communities need to be admitted – in a structured way – into both a COVID-19 emergency strategy and the long-term plan to assist the overseas students, TPV holders and asylum seekers and other vulnerable members of our Australian community.
Our recommendations of how this could be achieved are:
- There is an urgent need during this COVID-19 time for more welfare coordination to limit duplication and to get assistance in culturally and religiously familiar places so needy people don’t, as currently, as is in several states, fall through the cracks. Therefore, Religions for Peace Australia suggests the consideration of a new government position or redeployment be made in each State and Territory, the Emergency Services Welfare COVID-19 Task Force Commissioner (ESWCC) (similar to the Bushfire Commissioner) be appointed to coordinate this area in the short and long term and that this person links with the Federal Not-for-Profit working group. We note this is currently informally occurring in Tasmania and South Australia. This ESWCC position needs to link between universities and institutes/consulates/relevant religious communities, other religious communities and other welfare agencies so there can be a whole of services plan to assist overseas students, TPV holders and asylum seekers and others.
- We commend the Victorian Government for giving $1 million for translation and increasing Family Violence funding. We hope the Victorian Government will work with religious leaders as well as ethnic leaders and religious communities on how to get support and information to their most vulnerable.
- We commend the Tasmanian, Victorian and last weekend the NSW State Governments’ announcements of cash payments to overseas students but recognise that this is not sufficient money in the long term. We also commend the NSW Government on providing accommodation to overseas students with this appearing to be the first state to take this initiative. Tasmania is to be commended for providing up to $2,000 of rental support for TPV holders.
- The link between the NSW Minister of Multicultural Affairs and NSW Religious Leaders during this COVID time has been streamlined and strengthened with regular and informative meetings. We commend the NSW government for this initiative. We urge that this regular meeting between faith leaders and the NSW Minister for Multicultural Affairs becomes standard practice in each State and Territory of Australia as this is a way of maintaining social cohesion in the short and long term.
- We welcome the newly appointed Not-for-Profit working group to support recovery in the sector (https://www.pmc.gov.au/nccc/news/not-profit-working-group-support-recovery-sector); however this does not have one or two representatives of religious communities despite many being significant welfare providers in the Not-for-Profit sector. We would ask that the Federal Government appoint two additional representatives from religious welfare providers and that they be from different States.
- We would urge you the Australian Minister for Multicultural Affairs to regularly call together the selected eight religious leaders at this COVID-19 time and then after this crisis call them together several times a year. Australia’s social cohesion needs these actions. We would also suggest you slightly expand this group, including the key multifaith organisations.
If Religions for Peace Australia could assist you in any way, please feel free to contact us.
With my best wishes at this difficult time,
Emeritus Professor Desmond Cahill OAM,
Chair, Religions for Peace Australia
Some of the attendees at the four meetings:
Dr Brian Adams, Director, Centre for Interfaith & Cultural Dialogue, Griffith University, Brisbane
Ann Aisatullin, Country Contact, United Religions Initiative, Australia
Ali Ahmed, Secretary, Religions for Peace, Victoria
Dr Susan Ennis, Secretary, Religions for Peace Australia
Dr Edwin Lourdes Joseph JP President, Multicultural Council of the Northern Territory
Rev. Albert (Bhakta Dasa) Lange minister of religion for the Vaisnava Hindu Community and ISKCON. A representative for the Hindu community in Victoria. Chair of Faith Community Council of Victoria.
Rev. Chris Parnell, webmaster, www.religionsforpeaceaustralia.org.au, Regional Interfaith Network
Philippa Rowlands, Chair, Multifaith Association of South Australia
Wies Schuiringa, Vice President, NSW Ecumenical Council
Jasbir Singh Suropada, Chairperson Sikh Interfaith Council of Victoria
Terry Sussmilch, Convenor, Religions for Peace, Tasmania
Rev Ian Smith, Executive Officer, Victorian Council of Churches
Rev Alimoni Taumoepeau Multicultural Pacific Council NSW
Rev Dr Andrew Williams, Minister of the Word, Darwin Memorial Uniting Church
Professor Samina Yasmeen, Director, Centre for Muslim States and Societies, University of Western Australia, Perth