Centrelink communications ‘like an alien language’ for Australians of migrant backgrounds

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.

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.

Andrea Peel says she has found it difficult to get clear-cut information from Centrelink.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

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.

A man with short blonde hair sitting on a chair
Daniel Turner likens some Centrelink communications to an “alien language”.(ABC News: Chris Taylor)

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.


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