Australia’s modern approach to refugee settlement began with the Federal Government’s response to the 1976 Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence report Australia and the Refugee Problem. In May 1977, the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Michael Mackellar, announced a new national refugee policy, including procedures for responding to designated refugee situations, a series of strategies to involve voluntary agencies in resettlement programs and plans to allow the settlement of people in humanitarian need who did not fall within the UNHCR mandate or Refugee Convention definitions. In the following year, Mr Mackellar tabled the landmark Galbally Report, Review of Post-Arrival Programs and Services for Migrants, committing $49.7 million over three years for the implementation of the report’s recommendations on language teaching, settlement services and other migrant services. The late 1970s also saw the establishment of the first Migrant Resource Centre in Melbourne (February 1977), a new loan scheme to assist refugees into home ownership (March 1979) and further expansion of the then Adult Migrant and Refugee Education Program. In December 1979, the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme commenced, involving community groups in providing newly-arrived refugees with on-arrival accommodation, social support and assistance with finding employment.
In the early 1980s, the refugee program expanded to an annual intake of up to 22,000, the largest annual intake in 30 years and a level not seen since. Vietnamese refugees settled from camps in Asia made up the bulk of new arrivals, with significant numbers of refugees also from Laos, Cambodia and Eastern Europe and smaller groups of Soviet Jews, Chileans, El Salvadorians, Cubans and members of ethnic minorities from Iraq (Assyrians, Armenians and Chaldeans).
The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) was established in 1981, providing a settlement option to people who had suffered serious discrimination or human rights abuses, had fled their country of origin and had close ties with Australia. In 1984, the refugee program included 106 Ethiopians, the first significant group of Africans. The mid 1980s saw increases in the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants from Eastern Europe (Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania), the Middle East (Lebanon and Iran), Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, East Timor and Latin America (El Salvador and Chile), with continued, though declining, settlement of refugees from Indochina. Growing awareness of the psychosocial impacts of persecution and conflict led to the establishment in 1988 of the first torture and trauma services in Melbourne and Sydney. Similar services were established in other state and territory capitals in subsequent years, leading to the development of a national network of torture and trauma agencies.
In 1989, a special visa category within the refugee program was established to facilitate priority resettlement for refugee women at risk and their children. In the 20 years since then, Australia has resettled 8,800 refugee women and their children under this program. In 1991, the Special Assistance Category (SAC) visa was introduced to respond to crises in particular countries, permitting settlement of people in vulnerable circumstances and with connections in Australia. The SAC provided resettlement options for people from the former Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, East Timor, Lebanon, Sudan, Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Cambodia and members of the Ahmadi religious movement. However, the SAC was progressively phased out by the Howard Government, which expressed concern that it had, at least in part, become more of a family reunion program. Its preference was for humanitarian family reunion to be handled under the SHP, through the split family provisions it introduced from 1997.
The 1980s and 1990s brought significant changes to the delivery of settlement services, with the shift from migrant hostels to the On Arrival Accommodation program, from the old Grant-in-Aid Program to the Community Settlement Services Scheme and with the replacement of the Community Resettlement Settlement Scheme in 1997 by the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy. These and later changes in the delivery of settlement services were traced in more detail in our submission for the 2008-09 Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
In this decade, we have seen further changes to service provision and significant shifts in the regional composition of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. A decade ago, half of the program was focused on resettlement from Europe. Now this makes up less 1% of the program. Resettlement from Africa increased from 16% a decade ago to 70% in 2003-04 and 2004-05, being reduced to a third of the program today. The continuing crisis in Iraq and the commencement of large-scale resettlement of Burmese from Thailand and Bhutanese from Nepal have seen the program shift to one evenly divided between Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
A milestone: 750,000 since Federation