George Bartolo is one of the many migrants who made their way to the Illawarra during the 1950s.
At the time, the new arrivals had no access to services.
Now, after years of face-to-face help, the looming closure of Warrawong’s Centrelink and Medicare offices has many, now-elderly, migrants worried they’re back to square one.
Mr Bartolo, the senior vice chairman of the Multicultural Communities Council of Illawarra (MCCI), aired his concerns at a meeting of southern Wollongong residents and federal Labor MPs at the Warrawong Community Centre on Tuesday.
Cunningham MP Sharon Bird and Member for Whitlam Stephen Jones have vowed to ramp up a campaign to overturn the planned closure, which they say is due to come into effect in six to eight weeks’ time.
The MPs claim the decision to shut the office was made without any community consultation and will hit the Warrawong, Berkeley and Lake Heights residents particularly hard.
The Warrawong Centrelink office is located in one of the most disadvantaged areas in NSW.
Residents will now have to travel to Wollongong or Shellharbour to access face-to-face Centrelink and Medicare services – or use online or phone alternatives.
Mr Bartolo said going elsewhere, including online, wasn’t a simple task and the closure was a “huge loss”.
“The migrants that came here in the 50s, there were just about no services whatsoever. Now they’re elderly … and now they put them behind the eight-ball again to access services,” he said.
“When they came there were no services and now that there are services they can’t have them.”
The MPs described the closure as a “slap in the face” to residents who campaigned for years to a get a Warrawong Medicare office.
Alice Scott, from Berkeley, was among those campaigners. Mrs Scott has visited Warrawong Centrelink “quite regularly” while caring for her sister.
“But it’s not about me,” she said.
“It’s about … the elderly non-English speaking migrants; they came here, they’ve worked all their life, most of the husbands have passed on but the women are still out there, they don’t drive – how are they going to get to Wollongong?”
Mrs Scott stressed the lack of parking near Centrelink in Wollongong was a barrier, as was the cost involved in catching public transport from Warrawong to the city.
The 78-year-old said her grandson was “battling” and she often helped cover the cost of his bus fares.
“If there was jobs to get, he’d be the first one in line but there’s none there,” she said.
“So they’ve got no choice but to turn up at Centrelink. If this office goes, I just don’t know. It’s making it so hard for those that are doing it tough.”
Ms Bird said the closure was a “stupid decision”, given “this service here is in one of the most disadvantaged regions in the state”.
“To have a local service where they [residents] can go and talk to someone is critically important,” she said.
“I think it’s a stupid decision because you’re closing a service right in the middle of a high demand, high need area and saying to those people ‘well just go online or go to another service’, which is not a realistic option for them.
“I don’t know why they keep doing it. The Howard government closed services here; we had to fight to get them reopened, which the Rudd government did [and] now we’re back to where we started.”
The Department of Human Services has been contacted for comment.