Pathways to protection and settlement
The past 24 months have seen numerous legislative, policy and program changes to the processing system and pathways to protection for people seeking asylum who arrive by boat to Australia. Some of the major changes, including the expansion of community detention, the shift to one refugee status determination process (since reversed) and the release of people seeking asylum from closed immigration detention into the community on bridging visas, have provided a welcome opportunity for Australia to observe the practical impact of alternatives to closed immigration detention on settlement pathways.
In reflecting on the community release of people seeking asylum, two consistent messages came out of consultations:
- Firstly, that the opportunity for people to live in the community while their protection claims are assessed instead of being held in closed detention centres is a positive and welcome move by the Government; and
- Secondly, that the current system of protection processes and programs supporting people seeking asylum is unnecessarily complex and confusing and could be improved significantly.
A number of service providers commented on the artificial and complex nature of current asylum policy, from the detention system to the community-based programs. There were consistent calls for a simplification of the systems, whereby the focus of the program is centred on the people seeking protection and a holistic approach taken to supporting them to resolve their status. A number of consultation participants called for a system based on the current mainstream service delivery platforms (e.g. Centrelink and Medicare) instead of setting up separate and complex programs. There was a general recognition in consultations from those supporting people seeking asylum on bridging visas in the community that significant gaps exist that undermine a person’s ability to make the transition from detention, particularly in the case of vulnerable groups such as long-term detainees, unaccompanied minors and other young people. There were repeated calls for the need to approach support for bridging visa holders through a holistic settlement framework and to refocus the program on proven indicators of good settlement: access to education, English language training, employment, orientation and housing.
Consultation participants in every state and territory spoke about employment as the issue that posed the greatest challenge for people seeking asylum on bridging visas. While there were consistent and strong messages about the willingness and readiness of people seeking asylum to work, this was not matched by their ability or, in some cases, entitlement to find work. Many people called for a well-defined and strategic policy framework related to employment services for people seeking asylum underpinned by the right to work. The need for education and better messaging to employers and industry bodies about the entitlements to work, skills and opportunities presented by people seeking asylum was raised in consultations across many states.
The question of how to best facilitate good, regular communication across all of the departments, agencies, organisations and communities working with people seeking asylum and refugees was raised as a priority in the consultations. The need for open communication between providers was listed as essential to a holistic program. In addition, given the growing number of agencies and individuals providing support and services to people seeking asylum in Australia, there was recognition among consultation participants that sector capacity building is required.
Across Australia, RCOA heard consistent messages about the dire effects that prolonged immigration detention has had on people. Many participants spoke about the impact of detention on a person’s ability to function in the community as profound. Several consultation participants, on the other hand, were happy to report that the shorter the period of detention, the higher the level of autonomy, engagement and agency among people seeking asylum found to be refugees.
Consultation participants shared a number of stories about people seeking asylum facing continual hurdles in trying to prove their cases and the inconsistency in decision-making. Several noted the stress and anxiety that waiting for a decision causes, as well as the challenges that people seeking asylum face in understanding where they are within the process. Even people that started as healthy, well-engaged clients can end up disengaging from services or school or even communication with friends as they wait for extended periods of time for a decision on their protection claim.
During the consultation period, a number of RCOA members expressed concern about the situation of refugees facing prolonged indefinite detention due to adverse security assessments. RCOA acknowledges that the Government has already taken steps to enhance review of ASIO decision-making through the appointment of an Independent Reviewer to assess adverse security findings made against refugees. As a non-statutory process, however, the Independent Reviewer model cannot provide a consistent or long-term solution to the lack of procedural fairness in decision-making on security assessments. There is also a need to explore alternative community-based arrangements for individuals who are found to pose an ongoing security risk.
Key and emerging issues
A number of emerging and long-standing issues were raised by consultation participants, particularly access to employment, education and training, health and housing. The needs of unaccompanied minors and single adult males who are arriving in Australia through the onshore stream were also identified as key issues requiring consideration in the future planning of settlement services.
As in previous submissions, the lack of recognition of the skills and qualifications of humanitarian arrivals was a common frustration expressed by participants. Strategies to better utilise the contributions of refugees included incentives for employers (modelled along the lines of similar programs to employ people with a disability or Indigenous people) and improvement to employment support services. Concerns were expressed about the precarious nature of employment for humanitarian arrivals, work safety and exploitation, while some participants raised the need for targeted training to assist people starting their own businesses.
Access to affordable and appropriate housing remains a critical issue for refugee and humanitarian entrants who are experiencing financial hardship, with reports of some people paying as much as 80% of their income on rent. RCOA heard anecdotal reports that the lack of affordable housing options was leading to social isolation as people moved away from support, overcrowding, the use of unsuitable alternative accommodation like garages, caravans and sheds, single men living with families, and homelessness.
In the area of education and training, concerns were raised about gaps in appropriate pathways for young refugees and the needs of unaccompanied humanitarian minors (UHMs) at risk of disengaging from education. Alternatives to formal English classes, like on-the-job English training and linking English with employment skills, were identified as ways to build the English language proficiency of refugees who arrive with limited education.
Many consultation participants identified an emerging need for increased health support for a large and growing group of men who have been separated from their families. Gaps were also identified in regions where the needs of people with complex health and mental health issues were not being met by existing services and resources.
Settlement planning was raised at a number of consultations where participants called for better forward planning and cooperation between Federal, State and local tiers of government. Many participants observed that State and local government-provided services were not being adequately resourced to accommodate growing populations of humanitarian arrivals. Regional service providers spoke of the benefits and challenges of regional settlement, while community members called for greater involvement of refugee communities in the delivery of settlement services.