A mistake that left behind a debt of tens of thousands of dollars — that’s how Andrea Peel, a 40-year-old migrant from South Africa now living in Sydney, describes her experience with Centrelink.
- Australians from migrant backgrounds are frustrated with confusing correspondence with Centrelink
- Some are paying back debts they don’t fully understand
- Advocates have described Centrelink communication as an “alien language”
In 2018, she received a letter stating her Child Care Subsidy payment had been overpaid for nearly two years.
“I basically got a letter saying that we owed close to $30,000 for failing to say that I was partnered up,” Ms Peel said.
Ms Peel said she had sent Centrelink documents showing she had moved in with her partner in 2016, as well as a marriage certificate when they wed one year later.
Centrelink told her it never received those details.
Unfamiliar with the system, and after her request to have the charge reviewed was denied, Ms Peel started paying off what she owed.
“I didn’t feel like I had a choice,” she said.
After almost paying off her debt, in May this year Ms Peel was struck with another two letters from Centrelink — she owed another $3,300.
She’s still unclear why.
“They [Centrelink] don’t give you answers, they only tell you were overpaid.”
Ms Peel contacted the Welfare Rights Centre, a Sydney-based community legal centre, to find a way to appeal her decisions.
Senior lawyer Daniel Turner said the center receives several cases a day involving vague Centrelink communications, which he likened to an “alien language”.
“The system is not adapting and responding to the 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 have not lived in Australia or they’re born overseas, they were fearful of their own government, so it takes a while to bring them to a position where we can get some basic instructions,” he said.
Khatema*, a 22-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan, also contacted the Welfare Rights Center after struggling to understand communication from Centrelink.
In 2021, after Centrelink’s newly arrived resident’s waiting period was reintroduced, her Youth Allowance was suspended.
The newly resident’s waiting period is 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 Centerlink and was told her payment couldn’t resume until she had served the remainder of the waiting period.
She believes under Centrelink rules as a dependent of a refugee, the waiting period should not apply.
“It was hard for me to say what I wanted, because my English isn’t that good, but I knew what my rights were,” Khatema said.
“We can’t solve our problems and say our feelings like we want in our language.”
As frustrating as her experience has been, Ms Peel feels like she’s lucky because she speaks English well.
“If you don’t have the English skills, getting a letter like that — I can just imagine how hard that would be.”
‘We need to reshape service delivery’
Mohammad Al-Khafaji, CEO of the Federation of Ethnic Communities Councils of Australia, said many people from migrant backgrounds give up trying to understand their situation with Centrelink.
“We need to understand that a lot of these people have fled from countries that interaction with government is a scary concept and if they don’t comply there’s repercussions,” he said.
Mr Al-Khafaji said more needs to be done to make sure government services are inclusive to all Australians.
“We are becoming more multicultural than less. Policymakers and bureaucrats need to reshape their thinking with service delivery,” he said.
“It will make a big difference in how vulnerable communities and minority communities are included in government service delivery.”
Mr Al-Khafaji said, most of the time, migrant parents rely on their children who speak English to try and find out information.
Melbourne-based Gulden Kanmaz is a primary school teacher who teaches English as an additional language and assists her Turkish-Australian family in understanding communication from Centrelink.
Ms Kanmaz helps her parents by clarifying the information written on the letters.
“I have even had to read the forms a few times myself just to go… ‘Is that exactly what they mean?’
“The wording can be quite difficult at times,” she said.
Ms Kanmaz said the school she teaches at had impressive results translating letters into multiple languages.
She’d 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, receive the English copy along with, say, the Turkish or the Arabic copy.”
‘You feel like you’re getting nowhere’
Services Australia, the government agency responsible for Centrelink, said in a statement it was committed to clearly communicating with participants.
“We know how important it is that people from cultural and linguistically diverse backgrounds have the support they need to interact with Services Australia,” general manager Hank Jongen said.
Services Australia offers a multilingual phone service, community-based multicultural services officers, and interpreters for over 200 languages and dialects, he said.
“We recognise people have varying literacy levels, which is why we provide and encourage the use of interpreters to help people fully understand their entitlements 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 in the first instance.”
But Ms Peel believes there are more issues than just difficulties with language.
The culture also has to change, she said, so those looking for answers feel like Centrelink actually 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