The 2014-15 submission was prepared in the months following the election of the Federal Coalition Government and focuses on Australia’s response to international refugee needs; community views on refugee and asylum policy changes that took place in 2012-13; and the new Coalition Government’s refugee policy and future plans.
International refugee needs
The number of people displaced by persecution, conflict, generalised violence and human rights violations increased significantly in 2012, largely due to conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Syria and the border area between Sudan and South Sudan. At the same time, the living conditions of many refugees remained as difficult as ever and millions remained in protracted situations with no prospect of a durable solution in the near future. The gulf between resettlement needs and available places remained wide, with just 89,007 refugees resettled in 2012 out of the 691,000 refugees the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has identified as being in priority need of resettlement. As challenging as global conditions for refugees were at the end of 2012, the situation became considerably worse in 2013, as the brutal civil war in Syria created refugee movement beyond anything seen for two decades. In summarising the concerns raised by non-government organisations (NGOs) at the international level in 2013, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) identified nine global challenges facing UNHCR, governments, NGOs and communities in responding to the needs of refugees:
- International support for Syria’s neighbours, with a focus on safeguarding the protection of and delivering assistance to refugees, mobilising financial support to meet needs in host countries and enhancing resettlement, family reunion and other transfers to third countries.
- Encouraging the wealthiest nations not to turn away from protecting refugees, responding to the trend towards restrictions on the entry of citizens of refugee-producing countries through tougher visa laws, tighter regulation of entry by air and efforts to reduce entry by land and sea.
- Providing prompt access to refugee status determination procedures, with people seeking asylum in many countries struggling to get access to timely refugee status determination processes and UNHCR facing strong political pressure from some host governments to limit access to asylum.
- Building momentum to tackle protracted refugee situations, with access to safe repatriation, integration and resettlement opportunities remaining limited or virtually non-existent for many refugees in long-standing situations of displacement.
- Making refugee resettlement more effective as a strategic tool, given the gulf between resettlement needs and available places and the consequent need to use resettlement strategically to unlock protection solutions for refugees who will never be able to resettle.
- Improving physical security of the most vulnerable refugees, including refugees at risk of sexual and gender-based violence, women and girls forced into survival sex and same-sex attracted refugees at risk of ongoing harassment, violence and persecution.
- Preventing the slide towards insecurity in countries at greatest risk, particularly in Afghanistan (where many citizens fear a possible resurgence of the Taliban from 2014) and Pakistan (where growing instability is undermining the safety of religious and ethnic minorities).
- Developing alternatives to detention, building on the work of UNHCR and NGO networks in actively promoting the use of detention alternatives, building awareness of successful models operating in many countries and pointing out the advantages of these models.
- Promoting greater opportunities for refugees to support themselves, with refugees in many countries expressing deep frustration at the barriers they and their families face in getting access to appropriate education and to the right to work legally.
Many of these concerns were echoed by diaspora communities in Australia through community consultation processes conducted over the past 12 months by RCOA. Some raised ongoing concerns about conditions in countries of refugee origin, with long-standing persecution and insecurity continuing to drive displacement and limit opportunities for safe return. Representatives from several communities spoke of the pressure faced by some groups of refugees to repatriate despite ongoing fears of persecution or despite conditions not being conducive to safe and sustainable return. Others highlighted the untenable conditions faced by refugees in different parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, with many living in situations where they do not have a secure status (and are consequently at risk of arrest and detention), lack access to education, healthcare, livelihood opportunities and even basics such as food and water, face ongoing harassment, violence and exploitation (including through human trafficking and extortion) and experience difficulties in accessing UNHCR, refugee status determination processes and durable solutions. Consultation participants saw the potential for Australia to play a significant role in responding to these and other global protection challenges. Many called on Australia to increase its resettlement intake in response to growing protection needs internationally and acknowledged the importance of the Australian Government continuing and expanding its funding to UNHCR. Participants also highlighted the important and potential role of Australia’s overseas aid program in addressing issues which drive forced displacement in countries of origin and alleviating the suffering of displaced populations in countries of asylum. A number of consultation participants called on the Australian Government to play a greater role in advocating internationally to prevent displacement and address protection issues, including through its role as a member of the United Nations Security Council. As in previous years, a number of consultation participants emphasised the need for greater cooperation on refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific region and saw the potential for Australia to play a lead role in developing this cooperative regional approach. Feedback on what Australia’s resettlement priorities should be in the context of global needs was, unsurprisingly, mixed. While some community members felt that Australia’s resettlement priorities should align with UNHCR priorities, others cautioned about resettling new groups and advocated for the focus to continue on communities that have recently arrived so that communities can build a critical mass and families are able to be reunited. Many consultation participants called on the Australian Government to focus on the most vulnerable and in need of resettlement, namely women and children, those in protracted situations and minorities in particularly dangerous situations. Many people spoke about the need to focus resettlement efforts on refugees who were being forced on from countries of asylum where security is rapidly deteriorating (this related most commonly to refugees living in Syria). A number of consultation participants felt that Australia’s resettlement program should include a stated focus on family reunion and that the family members of refugee and humanitarian entrants in Australia who meet UNHCR criteria should be considered as a priority for resettlement. For the past two years, RCOA has put forward a set of principles to guide Australia’s response to international refugee needs. We believe these principles remain as relevant as ever in the face of current global challenges:
- The need for resettlement to be made widely available as a durable solution.
- A focus on resettling the most vulnerable.
- An emphasis on maintaining family unity.
- The strategic use of resettlement to promote broader refugee protection.
- The need to balance resettlement needs in different regions.
- A coherent overarching government strategy for refugee protection.