Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian Program
Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program
As in previous years, there were strong calls across the country for a significant increase in the size of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Many participants again expressed disappointment that the program had been reduced in size despite an escalation in global needs. Several participants called for intake to be restored to 20,000 places annually, with some calling for further increases to up to 30,000 places annually given the scale of current global needs. A number of participants also highlighted the fact that the settlement sector had increased its capacity to support the increased intake in 2012-13 and the sudden contraction in the size of the program has resulted in a substantial loss on the taxpayer-funded investment in the settlement services sector.
One of the most significant changes to the composition of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program over the past year has been the dramatic increase in the number of Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) visa grants. While the increase in SHP visas was generally welcomed by consultation participants (particularly as a means of expanding family reunion opportunities), some expressed concerns about the impacts of this change on settlement patterns. The feedback gathered suggests that the increased emphasis on SHP visa grants has resulted in a larger proportion of refugee and humanitarian entrants arriving in more established settlement areas at the expense of smaller or emerging settlement areas, resulting in significant fluctuations and inconsistency in settlement patterns. Concern was expressed that these fluctuations were hampering advance planning and could result in significant loss of skills, expertise and human resources from the sector as providers are compelled to reduce staff numbers in order to survive financially.
As in previous years, consultation participants raised a number of concerns relating to the Community Proposal Pilot (CPP). These included the high fees, the inclusion of the CPP quota within the existing Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake, the lack of a settlement support from services in cases of family breakdown and prioritised processing. Many also commented that the high costs of the program and significant responsibilities of proposers placed newer communities at a disadvantage and hampered the involvement of the wider community, religious groups and refugee community organisations in the CPP. While there has been significant criticism of the program, a large number of community members stressed their desire to be more involved in the sponsoring and settlement of new arrivals. Many established communities have indicated they have the capacity, networks and resources to provide support to new arrivals, yet felt the high fees and strict requirements of the CPP are prohibitive. Those consulted recommended that in the up-front costs of the CPP be significantly reduced and the fees associated with social security be replaced with an assurance of support model.
Issues relating to family reunion were raised in almost every consultation. Community members and service providers across Australia continued to highlight the devastating psychological, economic and social impacts of family separation, with a number expressing the view that successful settlement was not possible without family reunion. While the increase in SHP visas was generally welcomed by consultation participants as a means of facilitating greater access to family reunion, many also drew attention to the challenges associated with this increase (such as the varying quality of on-arrival support provided by proposers). It was also evident from the feedback received that not all communities had benefited from the increase in the SHP quota, with some (particularly people from African countries) reporting ongoing difficulties in accessing SHP visas.
Participants in many consultations raised a range of ongoing concerns relating to the processing of applications for family reunion and unreasonably restrictive eligibility requirements. Many expressed confusion and frustration about prolonged delays in processing and the limited or lack of information communicated to applicants about the reasons for these delays or the progress of their applications. Concerns were also raised about the restrictive definition of family used to assess and prioritise family reunion; difficulties in sourcing documentation or evidence to substantiate family relationships; denial of family reunion opportunities to people who had not been formally registered as refugees; and the high cost of family reunion, particularly for people sponsoring family members under the family stream of the Migration Program. A number of consultation participants who had been resettled in Australia reported receiving unrealistic or incorrect information before their arrival about their likely prospects of family reunion. This appeared to be a particularly significant issue for Afghan Locally Engaged Employees resettled on subclass 201 visas.
A significant number of consultation participants expressed serious concerns about restrictions on eligibility for family reunion for people who arrived in Australia as people seeking asylum by boat. It was felt that the change to processing priorities, whereby applications lodged by people who arrived by boat would be afforded the lowest priority, was an unnecessarily punitive measure likely to have serious negative consequences for people settling in Australia (and their family members living in precarious situations overseas). Some participants also reported delays in family reunion resulting from the suspension of visa grants to people living in countries affected by Ebola.