THOUSANDS of asylum seekers are struggling to live on as little as $31 a day - less than the dole - camped in hostels and boarding houses across the country with no access to government language training or official job schemes.
In what threatens to create a new migrant underclass, some people have been forced to sleep on the floor without a mattress in crowded share houses after they are given a meagre six weeks to learn English, secure work and long-term accommodation.
The chronic overcrowding of immigration detention centres has seen almost 3200 asylum seekers tipped into the community on bridging visas over the past eight months, putting enormous strain on charity groups to look after their welfare. Asylum seekers are now scattered across every state and territory, in suburbs and small country towns, also creating a logistical nightmare for the Immigration Department to efficiently interview people about their refugee claims.
The challenge is set to grow after two consecutive months of record boat arrivals, putting more strain on the detention network.
Authorities picked up two more vessels yesterday at Christmas and Cocos islands, carrying a total of 36 passengers. More than 3500 people sailed to Australia in June and July - with a total of more than 7100 arrivals since January.
Despite the mounting pressure, refugee support groups are convinced the Gillard government's decision last November to begin releasing asylum seekers into the community while their claims are finalised is far preferable to, and cheaper than, long-term detention.
But they warn not enough is being done to support people as they find their feet in a foreign country, often with little or no English. ''We have a waiting list for the first time in 11 years of people needing assistance,'' said Jana Favero of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.
Victoria and New South Wales are home to the largest number of asylum seekers released from detention, with 1530 people living on what is known as ''Bridging Visa E'', according to the most recent figures from the Immigration Department.
Mostly single men, they are provided a stipend for basic living expenses at 89 per cent of the lowest Centrelink payment - roughly $435 a fortnight. Some rental assistance is offered - but not to all.
They are allowed to work, but barred from using the official Job Services Australia system to find employment.
No official support is provided for language training either, with a handful of volunteers seeking to fill the gap.
Ali, who asked not to be further identified for fear his family could be persecuted at home, fled the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to Australia and arrived by boat at Christmas Island in January. He was released from detention on a bridging visa four weeks ago and shares a three-bedroom house with five housemates in Dandenong, rent $1340 a month, sleeping on the floor with a blanket.
''Rents are very high, so we are looking for more friends to join us, to make it cheaper,'' he told The Age.
He was on his way to a job interview, having sent his resume to several prospective employers, having the advantage of good English, but has yet to have any luck.
Employers are reluctant to give jobs to people who are not yet certain of their visa status.
The Australian Red Cross runs a scheme on behalf of the Immigration Department to support asylum seekers on bridging visas for the first four to six weeks after their release.
''If they have nowhere else, we will provide them some modest accommodation in a hostel or boarding house, something like that,'' Red Cross director of services Michael Raper said. But after that initial six weeks, asylum seekers must find their own way, relying on friends, migrant communities or the goodwill of charity groups to find a home and work.
Mr Raper said the scheme was far cheaper than the cost of keeping people in detention after the Australian Council of Social Service released a report last year showing it cost $180,000 to process an asylum seeker on Christmas Island for a year, compared with $40,000 in the community.
But he said the lack of official language training was a failing of the scheme and the Red Cross had written to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen urging a change.
Asylum seekers on bridging visas are required to check in with immigration officials - some monthly, others less frequently - and the department said no one had yet breached these requirements.
The time spent on bridging visas varies, but immigration insiders say the dispersion of asylum seekers makes it more difficult to process claims, with the need to get translators, officials, lawyers and the person in one place.
A spokeswoman said the Immigration Department was working closely on arrangements for interviews and people could attend a local office.