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Intake submission on Australia’s 2016-2017 refugee and humanitarian program

2016-17 Refugee and Humanitarian Program

This year, the Government called for an open consultation. To inform this submission, we consulted with communities in every state and territory conducting 53 consultations in 17 towns and cities as well as engaging peak bodies from the business, community and other sectors.

Executive summary

The year 2015 was a dramatic and traumatic period for refugees, in Australia and internationally. The number of people forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations is now at the highest level since World War II. The enormous challenges of global displacement have come to be symbolised by dramatic images of Syrian children washing up dead on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Germans lining up to help refugees at train stations and Hungary’s barbed wire fence along its border.

In Australia, those images were mixed with alarming stories of the harm suffered by the people detained in Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Less visibly, the year 2015 was marked by the implementation of dramatic changes in Australia’s asylum policy, affecting over 30,000 people in the Australian community. These included significant changes to the determination of refugee status, the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas and the removal of government-funded legal assistance.

New issues emerged, including protracted delays in the granting of citizenship and the denial of access to further or higher education for those on Temporary Protection Visas. Most of the old problems remained, including the vanishing prospects for many refugees of being reunited with their loved ones, access to education and employment, and the absence of suitable housing options.

This submission to the Australian Government on options for the 2016-17 Refugee and Humanitarian Program and for broader refugee policy reflects the voices and views, and the ideas and expertise, of individuals and organisations from across Australia: people from refugee backgrounds, people seeking asylum and the many brave and committed communities and organisations supporting them.

It is the result of the largest consultation process ever conducted by RCOA in 30 years of preparing annual submissions, based on 50 face-to-face consultations in 17 cities and towns in eight states and territories, as well as additional meetings and teleconferences and a call for submissions. The submission also brings international perspectives, through gathered by RCOA from international networks, participation in global meetings and from refugee communities in Australia. While outlining current and future challenges for Australian refugee policy, our goal has been to draw together a constructive agenda of new ideas as well as incremental improvements to existing programs.

Our recommendations

Recommendation 1: Develop an integrated response to refugees

The Australian Government should:

  1. develop a cross-portfolio approach to promoting the protection of refugees and working with other states to explore options to promote:
  2. i. peace in countries of origin, particularly states from which the number of refugees and people seeking asylum is increasing (e.g. Pakistan)
  3. reconciliation processes in countries where there is movement towards peace and possibilities for the eventual safe voluntary return of refugees (e.g. Burma, Sri Lanka)
  4. access to some form of legal status, alternatives to detention, work rights, education and health for refugees in countries of asylum, particularly in South East Asia
  5. cooperation between resettlement states which even more actively engages with host states on other forms of durable solutions
  6. convene a forum with NGOs, peak bodies, intergovernmental bodies and other relevant stakeholders to advance the development of this integrated response to displacement, including through consideration of the roles of aid, diplomacy, capacity-building and resettlement.

Recommendation 2: Regional strategy for Rohingya refugees

The Australian Government should work together with regional governments and other resettlement states to develop a regional strategy for facilitating resettlement and brokering other durable solutions for Rohingya refugees, including through working for the reinstatement of resettlement from Bangladesh.

Recommendation 3: The size of the refugee program

The Australian Government should increase the offshore refugee resettlement program to 20,000 places in 2016-17 and expand the program progressively in the following four years towards an annual program of 30,000 places. This should be done in consultation with settlement service providers and other relevant stakeholders to ensure the expansion is adequately resourced.

Recommendation 4: Additional intake for Syrians and Iraqis

The Australian Government should make additional resettlement commitments of 10,000 places each year for the next three years for refugees displaced by the Syrian crisis, also consulting with settlement service providers regarding planning and the allocation of resources.

Recommendation 5: Regional composition of the Program

The Australian Government should ensure that resettlement from Africa and Asia continues at a rate appropriate to the scale of need, with the Africa program making up at least 25% of the offshore program in 2016-17.

Recommendation 6: Composition of the program by visa subclass

The Australian Government should:

  1. implement measures to ensure greater diversity in settlement patterns under the offshore component of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program (such as adjusting the balance between visa subclasses), and
  2. review the adequacy of funding for settlement services for those arriving on a Special Humanitarian Visa (class 202).

Recommendation 7: Community Proposal Pilot/Community Support Program

The Australian Government should:

  1. substantially reduce the Visa Application Charge associated with the Community Support Program, and replace this with an Assurance of Support designed to cover the costs of providing settlement support within the first 12 months of arrival in Australia
  2. increase the size of the Community Support Program significantly, including by expanding the geographic reach of the Program to ensure that it is available nationally in both metropolitan and regional areas
  3. ensure that humanitarian need remains the primary criterion for processing priorities under both the Community Support Program and the Special Humanitarian Program
  4. ensure that the Community Support Program includes a “safety net” mechanism to protect those sponsored in cases of emergency or relationship breakdown, and
  5. break the numerical link between the Community Support Program and the offshore Refugee and Humanitarian Program, providing a positive incentive for communities with financial means to work together to create resettlement opportunities which otherwise wouldn’t exist.

Recommendation 8: A new approach to humanitarian family reunion

The Australian Government should:

  1. allocate at least 5,000 visas under the family stream of the Migration Program for refugee and humanitarian entrants. These visas should offer the following concessions: concession rates or waivers for Visa Application Charges; exemption from certain documentation requirements and the health requirement; prioritised processing if family members are at immediate risk; access to relevant settlement services; and exemption from Centrelink’s Newly Arrived Resident’s Waiting Period
  2. introduce needs-based concessions under the family stream of the Migration Program for people who are sponsoring relatives in humanitarian need and are able to meet some, but not all, of the eligibility and documentation requirements for family visas, and
  3. conduct a 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.

Recommendation 9: Other measures to support family reunion

The Australian Government should:

  1. significantly reduce existing processing times for family reunion applications
  2. improve its procedures for communicating with visa proposers and applicants about progress with the processing of applications
  3. restore funding for professional migration advice services under the Settlement Grants program
  4. expand the no-interest loan scheme administered by the International Organization for Migration Extend and extend eligibility for the scheme to refugee and humanitarian entrants sponsoring relatives under the family stream of the Migration Program
  5. review the definition of “family” used to assess and prioritise family reunion applications to bring it into line with the definition used in UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook, and
  6. remove current restrictions on family reunion for refugees who arrived by boat.

Recommendation 10: Exploring alternative migration pathways for refugees

The Australian Government should bring together representatives of business, the education sector, civil society, refugee communities and UNHCR to discuss alternative pathways for refugees to enter Australia, including through the skilled, student and family streams of the Migration Program.

Recommendation 11: Mental health of people seeking asylum

The Australian Government and relevant State and Territory governments should:

  1. as a matter of urgency, ensure adequate access to mental health services for people seeking asylum, especially those in detention, and
  2. convene an expert group to advise on the mental health of people seeking asylum.

Recommendation 11: Transport concessions

State and Territory governments should, if they do not already, provide transport concessions for people seeking asylum.

Recommendation 12: Granting of work rights

The Australian Government should:

  1. improve its communication and processing in relation to the grant of work rights, both to people seeking asylum and to prospective employers; and
  2. renew bridging visas for a minimum period of a year, in light of the projected timelines for refugee status determination.

Recommendation 13: Status Resolution Support Services program

The Australian Government should:

  1. improve communication between service providers and relevant Australian Government agencies
  2. review the usability and utility of the portal used in the Status Resolution Support Services (SRSS) program
  3. review the SRSS program including, in particular, the issues of eligibility, the size of caseloads and the appropriateness of support available in the different bands including levels of contact and outreach, and
  4. review the complexity of the eligibility criteria for access to the program and different levels of support within the program.

Recommendation 14: Access to legal advice and representation

The Australian Government should:

  1. ensure that all those in detention subject to the fast track processing are provided with full legal representation
  2. provide a transparent mechanism for enabling people to provide information to support their need for government-funded legal representation, and
  3. immediately restore funding for legal advice and assistance for people who have arrived by boat.

Recommendation 15: ‘Fast track processing’

The Australian Government should restore a single statutory system of refugee status determination for all regardless of the way they came.

If “fast track” processing is retained, the Australian Government should:

  1. improve its communication regarding key aspects of the scheme, including ensuring wide availability of information to people seeking asylum and those supporting them
  2. include flexibility to extend timelines in cases of known vulnerability, such as for victims of torture and trauma, sexual violence and children
    1. revise the complexity of application forms and ensure these are translated into community languages
    2. provide clear guidance on evidence and identity documentation requirements, in consultation with UNHCR and country experts with expertise
    3. invest resources to ensure timely processing of freedom of information requests
    4. monitor, with the assistance of UNHCR, the quality of decision-making and interview processes, and
    5. publish timely information on the progress of fast track processing.

    Recommendation 16: Immigration detention

    The Australian Government should:

    1. ensure that those in closed detention have adequate access to services and appropriate living conditions, including especially adequate access to health care including mental health services
    2. improve communication and transparency in relation to detention of people on “character” or “behavioural” grounds
    3. release refugees subject to prolonged indefinite detention, including those subject to adverse security assessments
    4. adopt and enforce a policy to ensure alternatives to detention are considered to ensure immigration detention is used only as a matter of last resort, and
    5. amend legislation to ensure regular transparent review of detention and to prevent situations of indefinite detention.

    Recommendation 17: Offshore processing and boat turnbacks

    The Australian Government should, as a matter of urgency, abandon the policy of offshore processing and boat turnbacks.

Recommendation 18: Temporary protection

The Australian Government should abandon the reintroduction of temporary protection and convert all temporary visa into permanent protection visas.

If temporary protection is retained, the Australian Government should:

  1. ensure accurate and timely information is communicated to those applying for or granted temporary visas and to service providers
  2. extend the period of transitional support provided under the SRSS following the grant of temporary visas
  3. grant temporary visa holders access to services and benefits on the same basis as those with permanent protection visas, including in particular: settlement services, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, schemes to support entry to further education (such as Commonwealth Supported Places, access to loans and availability of income support)
  4. access to family reunion and travel overseas on the same basis as those with permanent visas, and
  5. the opportunity to apply for permanent residency upon expiry of their temporary visa.

Recommendation 19: Jobactive

The Australian Government should:

  1. ensure adequate support and funding for the use of interpreters and bilingual caseworkers
  2. require Jobactive providers to ensure staff are trained in cultural competency, including in the use of interpreters and cross-cultural communication, and ensure that this requirement is independently monitored or audited
  3. review the process for assessing employment streams to ensure the appropriate identification and weighting of disadvantages experienced by refugee and humanitarian entrants;
  4. review the effectiveness of employment services in meeting the needs of refugee and humanitarian entrants with a view to encouraging the improvement of employment outcomes for people seeking asylum and refugees; and
  5. restore and increase funding to employment providers with expertise in working with refugee and humanitarian entrants.

Recommendation 20: Refugees with a disability

The Australian Government should:

  1. ensure settlement agencies are given adequate and timely information about the health and disabilities of people being resettled
  2. fund settlement agencies to provide support to newly arrived refugee and humanitarian entrants with disabilities
  3. ensure that refugee and humanitarian entrants gain access to disability services, occupational therapists, specialist equipment and other required medical services in a timely way, and
  4. ensure that refugees with a disability who are resettled to Australia are able to receive access to Complex Case Support, immediate access to relevant medical and disability specialists and adequate accommodation on arrival.

Recommendation 21: Citizenship delays

The Australian Government should:

  1. improve its communication to those affected by delays, including explaining to those affected the reason for the delays, and
  2. expedite processing of citizenship applications as a matter of urgency.

Read the full report