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Sign Welcome Refugees at rallyIntroduction

The world is in the midst of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. Yet Australia’s approach in recent years has been to punish people seeking asylum, while increasing the numbers of refugees it resettles. This contrasting approach threatens the long and proud history Australia has of successful integration of refugee communities.

This report reflects what we have heard from refugees and people seeking asylum, and the people supporting them. We thank all of the people who contributed to this report.

The past two years have been a dramatic and traumatic period for refugees, both at home and abroad. More people are seeking safety – from persecution, conflict, violence and violations of human rights – than at any time since World War II. In the past two years, we have seen lifeless children washing up on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. We have seen ordinary Europeans lining up to help refugees at train stations. We have seen Australians demanding successfully that their leaders let in an extra 12,000 people fleeing the crises in Syria and Iraq. We have seen Canada open its arms to tens of thousands of people fleeing Syria and Iraq through its #WelcomeCanada program. In New York, we saw the world recommit to the principles of refugee protection and offer more places for protection, in two landmark international summits.

We also saw Hungary building a barbed wire fence along its border and holding a referendum to make sure refugees were not sent there. We saw country after country in Europe shutting their doors on refugees, and Europe sign up to a deal with Turkey to stop the displaced coming. We saw, and are still seeing, far-right parties rising on the back of hostile sentiment against both migrants and refugees. We have watched as Pauline Hanson was elected to the Senate promising an end to Muslim migration and as Donald Trump was elected promising not to let in any Syrians.

Back home, we have heard about – but have been largely prevented from seeing – the suffering of those we have sent to Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Thousands are still there, more than three years after we started ‘processing’ them and several months after the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled the detention centre on Manus Island was unconstitutional. While we welcomed the news in November 2016 that the US would resettle some of those stuck in limbo, their fate remains unclear.

We have also been left in the dark about the fate of the boats that the Australian Government has pushed back to sea. While the Australian Government claims it is saving lives, the truth is we are returning people to danger, or forcing people through even more dangerous passages.

On our shores, about 30,000 people seeking safety within Australia found themselves up against new barriers. One of these was the introduction of a fundamentally unfair and discriminatory way of determining their refugee claims, for most without any access to legal advice. Once again, those seeking safety in Australia were told that they would now always live in limbo, limiting the hope of ever reuniting with their families, and denied the chance to truly call Australia home. These vulnerable people face a future living in the margins, unable to access further education and vulnerable to exploitation. Others who had found safety in Australia were unable to become citizens, as the Australian Government dragged their feet in deciding their citizenship applications, as the Federal Court found in a case brought with the support of the Refugee Council in December 2016.

Some things that were already bad got worse. For many refugees in Australia it became even harder to reunite with loved ones overseas and for some people who came more recently, it has now become impossible. While we welcomed the release of most children and families from detention and the closure of several detention centres, those kept locked up continued to be incarcerated for increasing lengths of time in increasingly difficult conditions. Their access to the outside world — to visitors, friends and families, and even to mobile phones — became more restricted. With a change in the law, more people are now locked up more easily through the cancellation of visas, creating a new class of people in indefinite detention. For those in the community whose claims are increasingly being rejected in the new unfair system, they are being left to destitution and exploitation.

By contrast, Australia agreed to take in an extra 12,000 people displaced by the conflict in Syria and Iraq. The resettlement of people from Syria and Iraq was welcome, although the unnecessarily drawn out process prolonged the opportunity to build new lives. Similarly, while the release of most children from detention in Australia was welcome, far too many children are still suffering on Nauru. Several State governments have shown leadership, offering new travel concessions and increased access to school and further education. Universities have also shown the way by providing scholarships for refugees and people seeking asylum.

We have wasted billions in detaining people on Nauru and Manus Island, caused great damage to many thousands of people, and been condemned for our brutal policies by the international community. Yet, of perhaps greatest concern is the way our approach undermines a sustainable global approach to managing the current crisis of displacement. Our government’s insular fixation on closing Australia’s borders fails to recognise the global nature of the crisis and the global cooperation required to begin to resolve it. Human displacement is a challenge the entire world must face together. There is not one single solution.

The Refugee Council of Australia’s State of the Nation report documents what is happening to real people, here in our community, to their loved ones and their families. It collects the voices and views, the ideas and expertise, of people who are living through the experience of seeking safety and settling in Australia and the many committed Australians who are working hard to help them. It reflects our conversations with people across Australia and within our networks in 2015 and 2016. Finally, it sets out the challenges we face as we head into 2017 and provides clear actions our governments, and communities can take to ensure Australia treats refugees humanely.

Leaving danger

In the past two years, a record number of people have been forced to seek safety from persecution, conflict, violence and violations of human rights than at any time since World War II. By the end of 2015, more than 65 million people had been forced to flee their homes – or one in every 113 people in the world.

More than half of the refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) came from just three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. While the Middle East has taken most of the world’s attention, a growing number of people in Africa continued to flee conflicts across the continent.

We are now at a point where humanitarian agencies are struggling to do the bare minimum of what they need to do to protect people. UNHCR is estimated to have received just half of its expected budget for 2016 for its life-saving assistance and essential services.

Despite the media narrative, the displacement crisis is one that is being managed mostly by poorer countries. Of the world’s refugees, 86%, or 13.9 million people, were living in developing countries. For many living in those developing countries, their lives are lived in the margins. Many do not have legal status. They often have limited access to work, health care and education and struggle to survive. Others live in countries which are becoming increasingly dangerous and where their legal status, ability to work, seek education and healthcare are greatly limited, such as in Iraq and Pakistan. These conditions force some people to move on, often dangerously – as we saw in 2015, when over a million people fled to Europe by sea.

Seeking safety

Australia is a world leader in resettling refugees from overseas with a proud history of successfully resettling more than 870,000 refugees since World War II. Yet Australia is also one of the world’s poorest in providing durable solutions to people who come here to claim protection – people seeking asylum – especially if they come by boat.

Australia is the only country in the world that sends people who come by boat to tiny poor islands, where they are detained and, for some at least, seem set to reside there for the rest of their lives. The offshore detention policy is supported by both major political parties. The policy has caused enormous suffering to over 2,000 people stuck on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Things have deteriorated significantly in the last two years, as the prolonged detention and deprivation of hope has started to break greater numbers of people.

Another story that has received less attention is one that affects about 30,000 people in our community. This group of people arrived by boat and have been waiting for many years for their claim for protection either to be resolved, or to even have a chance to make a claim. Some of this group have already been found to be refugees but are being asked to start the process all over again. Those who arrived after 13 August 2012 are forced to claim protection under a new system, misleadingly called ‘fast tracking’, which changes the ways refugee claims are determined in fundamentally unfair ways.

Settling in Australia

 The unfolding effects of temporary protection visas are leaving refugees and people seeking asylum in ‘limbo’. People going through the ‘fast track’ process, even if formally recognised as refugees, will never truly be able to call Australia home. This is because, for anyone whose claims for protection had not been finalised by 2014, new laws meant that they could no longer get a permanent visa. The only option was for people to get a temporary visa – either a visa for three years (a temporary protection visa or TPV), or a visa for five years (a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa or SHEV).

Other issues for refugees and people seeking asylum attempting to settle in Australia include the separation of families, lack of support for people with disabilities or mental illness, difficulty learning English and struggling to get a job.

The challenges ahead

Australia’s policies towards resettling refugees from overseas lead the world. Yet its policies towards people seeking asylum, especially those who come by boat, are among the world’s worst. Australia, alone in the world, sends people seeking asylum by boat to tiny islands with threats they will never be able to seek safety in Australia. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that locks people up indefinitely. Australia forces people into destitution. Australia leaves people in limbo. Australia forces people seeking asylum to go through a fundamentally unfair process to claim protection, without any real legal help. Even if people get protection, they only get it for a few years before they have to start over again, meaning they can never really start to plan their lives, their future and can never really become Australian.

Australia’s current policies are causing enormous harm, both physical and mental, to tens of thousands of people. Australia’s current policies are also causing harm to the Australian public: they undermine our liberal principles; they encourage racism and hostility; they undermine social cohesion and trust; they create an underclass of vulnerable people, and possibly a generation of people who are locked out of Australian society. This is a generation that could bring so much to Australia but we are at real risk of losing them. In so doing, we risk losing our own understanding of what it is to be an Australian, to be part of a country that celebrates multiculturalism and is strengthened by its diversity.

Key priorities

The following are what we see as some of the key priorities for 2017:

  • End the punishment of people seeking asylum
  • End offshore processing
  • End indefinite detention
  • End temporary protection
  • End ‘slow tracking’
  • Stop damaging mental health
  • Help people settle
  • Bring families together