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Australians want a more open-hearted national response to refugees

The Australian Government must reverse its recent cuts to the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to meet community expectations that the nation can do more to respond to refugees displaced from escalating conflicts in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar and Ethiopia, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) says.

RCOA president Jasmina Bajraktarevic-Hayward said the cutting of 28,382 humanitarian places since the 2019 election had left the Government with limited options as millions of Australians seek a more generous response to people displaced by conflict and persecution.

“As occurred during August’s takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, millions of Australians are being deeply moved by what they are seeing unfold in Ukraine,” Ms Bajraktarevic-Hayward said. “They want our nation to have a more open-hearted response to the needs of people who are being forced to leave their country.

“The Government cannot meet the community’s expectations while it restricts the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to a maximum of 13,750 places per year and continues to ignore widespread calls for additional places or the restoration of places lost during the current Parliamentary term.

“Without a significant increase in humanitarian visa places, the Government leaves itself with few options to respond to the emerging needs of Ukrainian refugees, the 150,000 or more Afghans who have applied for resettlement in the past six months and the many refugees displaced from conflicts in Myanmar, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq, Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Yemen and Venezuela.

“On the weekend, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet called for Australia’s humanitarian program response to the needs of Ukrainians to be additional to the current program because he did not want to see other vulnerable people excluded. Mr Perrottet is right that we must avoid a refugee program which is so restricted that it has potential to pit communities in dire need against another. Many refugee communities fear that as a new crisis emerges, their situation will slip from the public eye and the conflict in their country forgotten.”

In its pre-election Budget in 2019, the Morrison Government planned for an annual humanitarian program of 18,750 places, budgeting for 75,000 visas in the four years to June 2023. Fewer than 47,000 places will be delivered.

In the 2020 Budget, 15,000 of those places were removed when the annual program was cut by 5000 places from July 2020. In the past two financial years, 13,382 of the remaining places were not issued because of the COVID pandemic and were not rolled over to future years. This resulted in the 2020-21 Refugee and Humanitarian Program being the smallest in 45 years – just 5,947 places.

Ms Bajraktarevic-Hayward said hundreds of thousands of Australians who had experienced forced displacement themselves were distressed by the images they were seeing from Ukraine.

“This is something I understand from my own experience, as someone displaced by the war in Bosnia just under 30 years ago. There are parallels between this conflict and the one that I experienced.

“Australians of refugee background experienced similar deep distress in August when seeing the events in Afghanistan. It is a trigger for those of us who see our own experiences replicated in the lives of people now but it also motivates us to want to see today’s refugees experience the same welcome we received in Australia.

“The coming 2022 Budget provides an ideal opportunity for the Government’s refugee response to meet the Australian community’s expectations.

“The Refugee Council of Australia is continuing the call for the Government to restore many of the lost humanitarian visas with a special additional intake of 20,000 visas for refugees from Afghanistan and a restoration of the annual program to 20,000 places, as it was prior to the 2013 election.

“A special intake for Afghan refugees will create more space for refugees from other nations, as we saw with the special intake of 12,000 visas for Syrian and Iraqi refugees from 2015. Over four years, the Government was able to resettle 39,146 refugees from Syria and Iraq as well as 28,600 refugees from other nations including Myanmar, Afghanistan, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Bhutan.

“The Australian community and service providers came together and scaled up our response to make sure new arrivals were supported in creating a home in Australia. In 2016-17 alone, we collectively settled 21,968 refugees. With such strong community good will, we can do more than that in 2022 if given the opportunity.”

For further comment or to arrange an interview, contact our media team on 0488 035 535 or at media@refugeecouncil.org.au.

For further information and more detailed statistics on the cuts to the Refugee and Humanitarian Program, see RCOA’s recent brief, 15,000 places for Afghan nationals over four years: Why Australians are disappointed

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