The Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) welcomes the opportunity to provide its views in response to the Australian Government’s discussion paper on Australia’s Humanitarian Program in 2021-22. As the national community peak body on refugee policy, RCOA has been involved in providing detailed feedback to the Australian Government on this program for more than 35 years. It started with our first formal consultation with the Australian Government on directions for the Refugee and Humanitarian Program in 1984 and has continued since 1987, when we made our first detailed written submission to the Government.
Our submission brings together views collected throughout the past 12 months through numerous engagements with our member organisations, refugee service providers, and refugee communities, ranging in format from targeted consultations to regular teleconferences. Like every other organisation, the COVID-19 pandemic created challenges for RCOA’s work. We were not able to proceed with our usual large-scale, face-to-face consultations and were unable to travel to different parts of the country; however, we continued to use every opportunity to understand the issues our members and refugee communities identify as their priority concern and how they want the Government to respond to those. Those concerns were not limited to domestic issues and included our response to the growing global displacement, especially at a time when a global pandemic has reduced access to protection.
Remove ‘ceiling’ language and fulfil commitment to full program
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government commits to implementing the full 2021-22 Humanitarian Program by removing the ‘ceiling’ language and allowing flexibility in allocation between the onshore and offshore components of the Program.
Plan for increase in Humanitarian Program to 25,000 places
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government commits to increasing the size of the Humanitarian Program in 2022-23 to 20,000 places, in recognition of the significant reduction in the delivery of the Program in 2020-21 and the capacity of Australia to make a more substantive contribution to international protection responses.
Facilitate the timely resettlement of visa-holders currently overseas
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government prioritise and expedite the facilitation of resettlement for humanitarian visa-holders currently waiting overseas by:
- granting Humanitarian (XB Class) visa holders individual travel regulation exemption based on visa sub-class alone;
- establishing a process for escalating vulnerable cases with links in Australia;
- ensuring a percentage of quarantine capacity is allocated to humanitarian visa holders;
- enhancing travel assistance support through IOM for SHP proposers and initiating facilitated flights from key locations; and,
- taking a pragmatic approach to facilitating small cohort travel from locations where there are fewer barriers to resettlement.
Refugee visa sub-classes reserved for cases referred by UNHCR
RCOA recommends that the Department of Home Affairs ensure that it is resettling the most vulnerable refugees. At least two-thirds of the Humanitarian Program should be set aside for Refugee Program visas (subclasses 200, 201, 203 and 204). Subclasses 200, 203 and 204 should be reserved for those who have been referred by UNHCR.
Develop a humanitarian family reunion program
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government develop a separate Humanitarian Family Reunion Program of 10,000 places distinct from the Humanitarian Program. This should be developed in consultation with former refugee community members and organisations, peak bodies and relevant service providers.
Enhance access to family reunion
RCOA recommends that, in the absence of a separate Humanitarian Family Reunion Program, the Australian Government enhance refugee and humanitarian entrants’ access to family reunion by:
- waiving application fees or at least introducing application fee concessions for refugee and humanitarian entrants sponsoring family members under the family stream of the Migration Program;
- expanding the availability of no-interest loans to assist proposers in meeting the costs of airfares and/or application fees;
- introducing greater flexibility in documentation and evidence requirements under both the Humanitarian Program and the family stream of the Migration Program;
- reviewing eligibility requirements under the family stream of the Migration Program which effectively exclude applicants from refugee backgrounds;
- prioritising processing of family members at immediate risk; and
- ensuring access to settlement services on arrival and exempting family from the Newly Arrived Resident’s Waiting Period.
The Australian Government should consult with stakeholders to develop a process for assessing eligibility for concessions. There should be consultation with refugee communities, practitioners involved in providing support with family reunion applications and other relevant stakeholders to develop a process for assessing eligibility for the concessions referred to above.
Remove restrictions on family reunion for those who come by boat
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government immediately remove current restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities for Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat (including changes to processing priorities).
If the above recommendation is not implemented, people whose applications have been affected by the introduction of retrospective changes to processing priorities should be given the opportunity to withdraw their applications and receive a full refund of application fees.
Restore funding for migration advice
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government restore funding for professional migration advice services to support refugee and humanitarian entrants in lodging family reunion applications.
Identify families in need of reunification
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government enter into dialogue with UNHCR about establishing a process for identifying refugee families that are seeking reunification, facilitating assessment and registration in countries of asylum and prioritising them for referral for resettlement under Australia’s offshore program.
Replace the existing Community Support Program with new model
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government replace the Community Support Program with a better model for community sponsorship for up to 10,000 places outside of the Humanitarian Program based on the proposal put forward by the Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative.29
Implementing a balanced program and ensuring non-discriminatory decision-making on visa grants
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government ensure the Humanitarian Program is balanced and non-discriminatory, selecting refugees and humanitarian entrants based foremost on vulnerability and need, rather than consideration of religion, skills, English language ability or any other attribute.
Separate the onshore and offshore components of the Program
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government de-link the onshore component of the Humanitarian Program from the offshore component.
Removal of cap or ceiling on the number of onshore visas
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government ensure that there is no cap or ceiling – officially or informally –on the number of onshore refugee visas granted.
Use the current circumstances to clear the backlog
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government through the Department of Home Affairs ensure that the Humanitarian Program meets the planning level of 13,750 places by allocating any remaining visas from the unfulfilled places to the onshore component. There exists a unique opportunity to allocate the remaining places to onshore applications found to be in need of refugee protection to ensure the backlog is reduced. The Department of Home Affairs should allocate extra resources and staffing to process those applications and not stop the processing when the visa grants reach the arbitrary planning figure.
Urgently review the regional settlement locations
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, including the Department of Home Affairs, conduct an urgent review of the current regional settlement locations in consultation with the settlement sector. This review should assess whether those locations still have the factors to achieve successful settlement, including housing affordability and service capacity.
Explore ways to retain skilled Humanitarian Settlement Program staff
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government urgently work with HSP providers to find innovative ways to pay and retain highly-skilled settlement staff.
Ensure genuine pathway options for TPV and SHEV holders filling labour shortages
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government modify the SHEV pathway to provide permanent visas to all refugees on a SHEV or TPV who work in a regional area or critical industry for 12 months.
Convene a forum to advance a whole-of-government integrated response to displacement
RCOA recommends that the Australian Government convene a forum with NGOs, refugee-led organisations, peak bodies, intergovernmental bodies and other relevant stakeholders to advance the development of an integrated and strategic response to displacement, including consideration of the roles of aid, diplomacy, capacity-building and the strategic use of resettlement.