A mistake that left tens of thousands of dollars in debt – that’s how Andrea Peel, a 40-year-old South African migrant now living in Sydney, describes her experience with Centrelink.
- Australians with an immigrant background frustrated by confusing correspondence with Centrelink
- Some pay off debts they don’t fully understand
- Supporters have described Centrelink communication as a ‘foreign language’
In 2018, she received a letter saying her childcare subsidy payment had been overpaid for almost two years.
“I basically got a letter saying we owed almost $30,000 for failing to say I was in a relationship,” Ms Peel said.
Ms Peel said she sent documents to Centrelink showing she moved in with her partner in 2016, along with a marriage certificate when they married a year later.
Centrelink told him he never received those details.
Unfamiliar with the system and after her request for a review of the charge was denied, Ms Peel began to repay what she owed.
“I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” she said.
After nearly paying off her debt, in May this year Ms Peel received two more letters from Centrelink – she still owed $3,300.
She still doesn’t know why.
“They [Centrelink] don’t give you answers, they just say you were overpaid.”
Ms Peel contacted the Welfare Rights Centre, a community legal center based in Sydney, to find a way to appeal her decisions.
Lead attorney Daniel Turner said the center received several cases a day involving vague Centrelink communications, which he likened to a “foreign language”.
“The system does not adapt and respond to specific needs such as cultural and linguistic needs of Centrelink customers,” he said.
Mr Turner said people can be stressed and confused when appealing Centrelink decisions.
“When they didn’t live in Australia or were born overseas, they were afraid of their own government, so it takes a while to get them to a position where we can get some basic instruction. “, did he declare.
Khatema*, a 22-year-old Afghan immigrant, also contacted the Welfare Rights Center after struggling to understand Centrelink’s communication.
In 2021, after the reintroduction of Centrelink’s newly arrived resident waiting period, her youth allowance was suspended.
The Newly Arrived Resident Waiting Period is the time spent in Australia as a resident before someone can claim Centrelink payments. The wait can be up to four years, but was suspended at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Khatema contacted Centrelink and was told that her payment could not resume until she served the remainder of the waiting period.
She thinks that under Centrelink rules as a dependent of a refugee, the waiting period should not apply.
“It was difficult for me to say what I wanted, because my English is not very good, but I knew what my rights were,” Khatema said.
“We can’t solve our problems and say our feelings the way we want in our language.”
As frustrating as her experience was, Ms. Peel feels lucky because she speaks good English.
“If you don’t speak English, receiving a letter like that, I can imagine how difficult it would be.”
“We need to reshape service delivery”
Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of the Federation of Ethnic Community Councils of Australia, said many people with a migrant background give up trying to understand their situation with Centrelink.
“We have to understand that a lot of these people have fled from countries where interacting with the government is a scary concept and if they don’t comply there are repercussions,” he said.
Mr Al-Khafaji said more needed to be done to ensure government services are inclusive for all Australians.
“We are becoming more multicultural than less. Policy makers and bureaucrats need to rethink the way they think with service delivery,” he said.
“It will make a big difference in how vulnerable communities and minority communities are included in the delivery of government services.”
Mr Al-Khafaji said most of the time, migrant parents rely on their English-speaking children to try to find information.
Melbourne-based Gulden Kanmaz is a primary school teacher who teaches English as an additional language and helps her Turkish-Australian family understand Centrelink communication.
Ms. Kanmaz helps her parents by clarifying the information written on the letters.
“I even had to read the forms a few times myself just to get going… ‘Is that exactly what they mean?’
“Formulation can sometimes be quite difficult,” she said.
Ms. Kanmaz said the school she teaches at had impressive results in translating letters into multiple languages.
She would like to see Centrelink do the same.
“It would be fantastic if the letters could be translated into the (recipient’s) language. So, you know, get the English copy along with, say, the Turkish or Arabic copy.”
“You feel like you’re going nowhere”
Services Australia, the government agency responsible for Centrelink, said in a statement that it was committed to communicating clearly with participants.
“We know how important it is for people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds to have the support they need to interact with Services Australia,” Chief Executive Hank Jongen said.
Services Australia offers multilingual telephone service, community multicultural service workers and interpreters for more than 200 languages and dialects, he said.
“We recognize that people have different levels of literacy, which is why we provide and encourage the use of interpreters to help people fully understand their rights and obligations.
“If anyone doesn’t understand a letter they’ve received or has questions about a payment or service, we encourage them to contact us directly first.”
But Ms Peel thinks there are more problems than just difficulties with the language.
The culture also needs to change, she said, so those looking for answers feel like Centrelink really wants to help.
“I just feel like a number…there’s no human connection. It’s just ‘You owe us’, and that’s it.”
*name has been changed