Australia's Refugee and Humanitarian Program
The increase in the Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake to 20,000 this year was overwhelmingly endorsed by consultation participants. Some participants encouraged the Government to expand the program further, provided any increase was matched with careful planning and additional resources for settlement services (including Settlement Grants Program [SGP] services) to maintain the excellent record Australia has in humanitarian resettlement. Participants from regional centres particularly welcomed the increase and spoke about the great potential as well as under-utilisation of regional areas as settlement locations, citing employment, housing, lower costs of living and welcoming communities as key drawcards.
In terms of composition, many consultation participants articulated reservations about the decision to allocate 12,000 Refugee visas and 8,000 to the Onshore Protection and Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) in the context of current high demand on both of the latter programs and there was continued strong opposition of the linking of the two. Others pointed to increased Refugee places leading to increasing demands on already-overwhelmed family reunion options and the prospect of even greater numbers of refugees settling in Australia who will face the prospect of protracted or indefinite separation from their loved ones.
Indeed, while the need for enhanced access to family reunion has been one of the most consistently-raised concerns in RCOA’s community consultations over many years, this year the volume of feedback on family reunion issues exceeded that of any other of the consultation themes. Across the country, people spoke about the increasing difficulties faced by refugee families separated by conflict, displacement and resettlement and the further restriction of the already-limited pathways to family reunion. Many saw this as in fundamental conflict with Australia’s obligations as a signatory to a number of international conventions which emphasise the importance of family unity, and indeed to the foundations on which Australia has been built which place family as a central building block of society.
While humanitarian family reunion has not been clearly articulated as a right or principle within Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, the Expert Panel recommendations and subsequent policy changes have placed additional barriers in the path of families seeking to reunite. Moreover, it is no longer just extended family members facing protracted or indefinite separation but also a large number of immediate family members. Extended families now face protracted or indefinite separation due to the lack of places in the SHP and the lack of alternatives within the family stream of the Migration Program. However, the 16,300 split family applications in the SHP backlog that represent the wives and children of adult boat arrivals and the parents and siblings of unaccompanied minors, now face indefinite or protracted separation because of the reassessment of these applications, the reprioritisation of processing and lack of places in the SHP, and the difficulties in successfully applying for a family stream visa.
The devastating consequences of the lack of family reunion options were articulated clearly in almost every consultation by refugee community members and the services that support them. Ironically, one of the most commonly cited implications was that more people would be arriving by boat to seek family reunification. Other emerging trends included humanitarian entrants returning or planning to return to countries of asylum to convene with family despite the risks and costs, and reports of significant health, mental health, economic and social problems, including homelessness and destitution.
Consultation participants spoke of the need to more fully incorporate family reunion as part of the overall structure of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program in recognition of the fundamental importance of families being able to find safety together. In the absence of a clear humanitarian family reunion policy and planning, there was a call for reconsideration of how to deal practically with the significant backlog in the SHP, particularly for those affected by the most recent policy changes. These changes were widely considered to be an enormously costly, ineffective and punitive response to the problem of refugees being separated from their immediate families. The announced increase of 4,000 places in the family stream of the Migration Program, while generally welcomed, was also greeted with some reservations about whether this provides a viable pathway to humanitarian family reunion, considering the lack of concessions and barriers concerning cost, documentation and eligibility requirements and lack of access to migration advice. Many participants also warned of the implications of increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Australia on non-humanitarian visas who will not be eligible for settlement services and the implications of this further down the track.
The idea of a private sponsorship pilot was received positively by a number of participants, who saw the potential of such a program to open alternative avenues for resettlement and provide opportunities for the community to become more closely involved in the resettlement process. However, details of the private sponsorship model had not been announced at the time of consultations, so much of the discussion was hypothetical. When the Minister announced that, in the pilot phase, the visa application charges would be $20,000 to $30,000 for a family and no option for incentives was included, RCOA expressed disappointment, noting that the sponsorship pilot will not enjoy the same level of community support as a result.