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Key Points on Australia’s Humanitarian Program 2024-25 Discussion Paper

The Department of Home Affairs is currently seeking public submissions on Australia’s Humanitarian Program for the 2024-25 financial year.[1] This is an opportunity for refugee community members and supporting organisations to share their views on Australia’s Humanitarian Program. This briefing paper provides a short outline of the key issues the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) will be raising in our submission. We encourage stakeholders to consider these issues when making their own submissions.

Submissions close 5:00 pm Friday 7 June 2024 and should be submitted to: Humanitarian.Consultation@homeaffairs.gov.au

RCOA Key Points on 2024-25 Discussion Paper
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1 A Welcome Vision

The Refugee Council welcomes the positive vision that the Australian Government set out through its 23 commitments made at the Global Refugee Forum held in December 2023. Key commitments[2] relating to resettlement include:

  • Increasing Australia’s Humanitarian Program.
  • Supporting the establishment and growth of resettlement programs and complementary pathways in other countries.
  • Gradually increasing community sponsorship and complementary places to 10,000 per year.
  • Implementing the expanded Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement Pilot to deliver 500 primary visas by 2025.
  • Developing a refugee student settlement pathway with higher education and settlement sectors.

To achieve these commitments, comprehensive leadership and a whole-of-government approach to resettlement is needed.

2 Structure and composition of the Humanitarian Program

2.1   Exceptional need to drive principled action

The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes has increased significantly over the past three years. Each year, UNHCR identifies people in urgent need of resettlement based on protection needs or where there is no other durable solution available to them. UNHCR identified 2.4 million refugees as being in need of urgent resettlement in 2024. This number is expected to increase significantly when UNHCR releases its projections for 2025 at the Consultations on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways on 5 June 2024.

In order to uphold the humanitarian purpose of the Program, we believe there should be key principles that underscore the core of what Australia’s Humanitarian Program can achieve. These principles include:

  1. Protection focus: The Humanitarian Program must retain its focus as a protection tool and prioritise refugees for resettlement first and foremost based on protection need.
  2. Family unity: One of the greatest pressures on people from refugee backgrounds living in Australia is the need to reunite with their family members, most of whom live in dangerous situations overseas.
  3. A whole-of-government approach: Australia could improve the strategic use of its limited refugee and humanitarian places and work to improve the rights of people displaced overseas by developing a government-wide strategic approach to resettlement.
  4. Transparency and accountability: The planning and delivery of the Humanitarian Program lacks openness and transparency. A more open process, informed by transparent and accessible settlement data, and co-designed with refugee community members, local, state, and commonwealth government, and refugee civil society organisations will strengthen the design and positive contributions from the Program.
  5. International responsibility sharing and communication: In combination with a whole-of-government approach, Australia has the opportunity to work closely with like-minded countries both to support their leadership on key refugee issues and to provide leadership on refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific region.

2.2 Failing structure

The current structure of the Humanitarian Program falls short in adhering to these principles. This undermines the current Australian Government’s assurances that the Humanitarian program is targeted at refugees with the greatest protection needs in countries of asylum.

The Refugee Council and many others have welcomed last year’s increase to 20,000 places for the Humanitarian Program. Many people incorrectly assume that Australia is offering 20,000 resettlement places but unfortunately this is not the case. These 20,000 places include all onshore protection places and all community sponsorship places, with the number of resettlement places reduced to make room. The current government has inherited these policy settings from previous Coalition governments – but the reality is that the current arrangements undermine this Government’s positive reforms for Australia’s onshore protection process, for the potential growth of community sponsorship and for our commitment to offering resettlement to the refugees who most need it.

The Government’s commitment to increase complementary pathways remains largely unimplemented, as the only complementary or additional pathway is the Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement Pilot of 500 places over two years. All community sponsorship options come from within the overall Humanitarian Program. This coupled with the link between the offshore Humanitarian Program and the onshore Protection Visa system means fewer places are available to people identified by UNHCR as in priority need of resettlement.

2.3 Key recommendations for the structure and composition of the Humanitarian Program

Key recommendations include:

  • The Humanitarian Program must remain true to its core principle of resettling refugees in priority need in the spirit of international responsibility-sharing. The best way to do this is through UNHCR referrals, as they are best placed to assess protection need and priorities. There are increasing pressures to reduce the number of places set aside for UNHCR referred refugees, due to increasing demand for the Community Support Program, the increase in onshore protection numbers allocated within the Humanitarian Program, and significant backlogs in the SHP. As such, approximately two-thirds of those resettled through the Humanitarian Program should be referred through UNHCR, who would mostly come under the 200 (Refugee) subclass.
  • The Special Humanitarian Program (SHP, subclass 202) should return to its core intention, to support vulnerable people who have close ties to Australia, are outside of their country and face significant human rights abuses, but who do not have access to resettlement through formal channels such as UNHCR. This can only happen if family reunion through the Migration Program is reformed to better support access by refugee families. Discrimination based on mode of arrival should also be removed for proposers of the SHP.
  • For over 25 years, the Refugee Council and other refugee civil society members have called for the Australian Government to break the link between the onshore protection visa program and the offshore Humanitarian Program. No other resettlement country in the world links their onshore refugee grants with their overseas resettlement places. Australia is alone in the world on this decision. For several years, onshore protection visas have been issued within a pre-determined cap – 1,650 visas from 2018, exactly 2,000 visas last financial year, and 3,000 visas predicted for this year. This increase continues to reduce the number of refugees in need being resettled from overseas and also exacerbates the backlog in unresolved onshore protection visa applications, undermining the Australian Government’s protection system reforms announced in October 2023. This program must be separate, uncapped and protection-focused, leaving decision-makers to issue visas as required to ensure the safety of refugees found to be in need of protection.

In light of the Government’s commitment to increase the Humanitarian Program to 27,000 places with an additional 10,000 places for community sponsorship and other complementary pathways, we propose the following scaling up the program, outlined in Table 1 (in the PDF document).

3 Increasing transparency and communication in the application process

Clear guidelines and criteria for the Special Humanitarian Program are needed to ensure that applicants are aware of the extensive backlogs in the program and how the Government intends to prioritise applicants. While visa criteria are set out in the Regulations, it is clear that most applicants meet these formal criteria but are not granted a visa because other applications are assessed as more compelling. A significant proportion of SHP applications are refused simply because there are insufficient visas available to meet the demand. The Department of Home Affairs often gives the same standardised refusal notice to many applicants, noting that while applicants “have strong links to Australia and that there is no other suitable country available for resettlement”, the Department does not “have the capacity to resettle all applicants who apply for a humanitarian visa at this time”, and refused the grant of a visa because the application was not of the “highest priority”.[3] If a genuine application is rejected, it is likely that the proposer will simply lodge another SHP application, hoping this time that they may meet the priority threshold. As such, refusals themselves do not address the backlog, and this must be addressed by a significant increase in the program and the creation of alternative pathways.

If the Government intends to refuse applications based on “priority” grounds, then it must publish these grounds to ensure that applicants understand the likelihood of their application being accepted.

4 Responding to future humanitarian displacement crises

The Australian Government needs a well-defined and principled strategy for emergency humanitarian responses to forced displacement and international protection issues. By establishing a clear and coherent strategy, Australia can provide certainty in its response, clearly define roles for all involved, and eliminate the service gaps and duplications that arise from the current ad-hoc approach. This approach should aim to ensure:

  • Clarity: Clarity in Australia’s response to humanitarian crises is imperative to ensure that both the Australia community and those directly affected understand the available support and the principles guiding Australia’s humanitarian actions.
  • Coherence: Coherence in Australia’s response to humanitarian crises is crucial, focusing on tailored interim measures that address the specific needs of diverse groups to prevent exacerbated vulnerabilities and ensure that all individuals receive the support they require.
  • Certainty: Certainty in Australia’s humanitarian response is essential to establish trust and predictability, enabling effective coordination and providing reassurance to those affected by crises that they can rely on timely and consistent support.

The following principles should underlie policy and program design:

  1. Safe Emergency Pathways: Australia should initiate safe emergency visa pathways during officially recognised humanitarian crises to facilitate the secure entry of individuals and families fleeing persecution, violence, and human rights violations, while providing clear policy guidance and acknowledging the challenges of leaving crisis zones.
  2. Timeliness and Accessibility: In response to humanitarian disasters, Australia should implement a rapid response system for issuing emergency visas, simplifying application processes, ensuring family unity, reducing fees, offering documentation flexibility, and providing additional support for meeting English language and health requirements.
  3. Durability and Flexibility: Emergency evacuees should receive permanent visas or clear paths to permanency, with tailored approaches and flexibility for temporary visas when necessary, to adequately address the needs of displaced individuals while ensuring protection against refoulement.
  4. Additionality: Emergency responses should be managed separately from the annual refugee program, with dedicated resources that do not detract from the existing program, ensuring sufficient capacity and support for emergent needs.
  5. Settlement Support and a Safety Net: Post-arrival, Australia must provide robust support based on the needs of emergency entrants, focusing on social security, health services, accommodation, education, and employment to facilitate successful integration.
  6. Partnerships with Multicultural and Diaspora Communities: The Australian Government should continue to strengthen partnerships with diaspora and refugee-led communities to enhance culturally inclusive emergency responses and support effective settlement processes through existing and new policy frameworks.
  7. Transparency and Communication: It is crucial for Australia to maintain clear, ongoing communication about its humanitarian crisis responses, involving key communities and agencies in regular feedback and problem-solving processes to enhance transparency and community engagement.

5 Complementary pathways

5.1 Principles

To unlock complementary pathways for refugees and ensure consistency across existing and future pathways, the following principles should underlie policy and program design:

  1. Coherent national approach: A strong, logical and coherent national framework for complementary pathways should be articulated by the Australian Government.
  2. Additionality: It is essential that admission of refugees through complementary pathways is additional to that facilitated through the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
  3. Durability: Complementary pathways for refugees need to be durable solutions that uphold humanitarian protection principles.
  4. Accessibility: Refugees and other displaced people (for example, stateless people) require consideration in policy settings to overcome barriers to accessing labour, family and educational migration pathways.
  5. Protection-focused: complementary pathways, like the Humanitarian Program, must be protection-focused, even when labour mobility, education, family links or community support drive the pathways. A key consideration for the visa grant should be a person’s need for protection.
  6. Supported settlement and a safety net: Refugees arriving through complementary migration pathways will likely have similar experiences and needs to other refugees with regards to navigating life in Australia. Ensuring adequate settlement support is available is imperative.

5.2 Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP)

The extension of the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP) for another year is welcome news. CRISP should be formalised into its own ‘unnamed community sponsorship program’, in addition to the Humanitarian Program, with a goal of 2,000 places by 2027-28.  The program is being held back by the fact that it is currently not additional to government-assisted resettlement and is being perceived by many people as a cost-saving measure within the government’s existing program. More people will be willing to get involved once they can see that their efforts to raise funds and mobilise other community volunteers are enabling Australia to resettle more refugees.

All government and non-government stakeholders should work to ensure a seamless transition between the pilot program and a permanent program to maintain the momentum of the community mobilisation effort and the credibility of Australia’s nascent community sponsorship movement.

5.3 Community Support Program (CSP)

The Community Support Program clearly meets a need but urgently needs reform. It discriminates on the basis of ethnicity and age; its goal of having employers lined up to provide jobs cannot work because of visa processing delays; and the program design forces sponsors to pay too much for applications. Despite this, there is a backlog in applications, because the numbers of people desperate to sponsor family and friends is so great. While the program is not additional to the Humanitarian Program, the main impact of the CSP is to save Treasury money by charging people a premium to have their relatives and friends prioritised over refugees who UNHCR would identify as being in greatest need.

The CSP should be significantly reformed or replaced by a more accessible, equitable and community-engaged ‘named community sponsorship program’ which allows different stakeholders (including diaspora communities, interest groups such as LGBTQI+ organisations, faith networks, professional bodies and other community groups) to support cost-sharing and settlement outcomes for refugees in need of resettlement with whom they have connections. Named community sponsorship should be in addition to the Humanitarian Program.

5.4 Developing genuine complementary pathways

These two community sponsorship programs are not complementary pathways while they take places away from much-needed resettlement places. Once these programs become additional, they will grow.

The only current complementary pathway that is additional to the Humanitarian Program is the Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement Pilot. With Australia taking over as chair of the Global Taskforce on Refugee Labour Mobility, there is a unique opportunity for Australia to demonstrate leadership and guiding direction on the complementary pathway. The Skilled Refugee Labour Agreement Pilot has been highly successful and the time is right for the learnings from this pilot to inform the introduction of an ongoing and improved program. Certainty about the future of the program is needed both by employers that are recruiting and the many refugees who are seeking to sell their skills to Australian employers. The Skilled Refugee Labor Program should be supported to bring in 5,000 primary applicants to the skilled program by 2027-28. The Government should also develop the Refugee Students Settlement Pathway for refugees wishing to study at university, in addition to the Humanitarian Program.

6 Supporting the economic contributions and positive settlement of refugees

Refugee and humanitarian entrants, like other Australians, want to work in ways that draw on their skills, experience and aspirations. Research has shown that refugee and humanitarian entrants make long and lasting contributions to Australia’s economy and society, including in the areas of jobs and skills. Finding employment is key to effective settlement, strengthening self-esteem and cultivating future job opportunities and careers.

For refugee entrants to be able to find meaningful and sustainable employment in Australia, employers need to see the value of workforce diversity and be willing to give someone a chance to apply their strengths, skills and experience in an Australian workplace. Many humanitarian entrants arrive with overseas qualifications and extensive prior work experience: they were business-owners, doctors, electricians, teachers, lawyers, managers and engineers. Others will have had limited opportunities to access training, education or work opportunities, or may have significant disruptions in their work histories due to experiences of persecution, conflict and displacement.

Key areas to best support the economic aspirations of humanitarian entrants include:

  1. Acknowledging the aspirations and economic contributions of refugees to Australia: Many refugees have been able to transition into employment and contribute significantly to Australia’s economy and society. Governments, businesses, and employment services should draw on this evidence, helping to remove barriers that prevent full economic participation.
  2. Promoting diverse strategies and inclusive recruitment processes: Australia needs to understand how economic inclusion, trauma, settlement stress, and socio-cultural factors require different strategies and pathways for newcomers. Incorporating diverse employment strategies and inclusive recruitment practices will help to increase workplace opportunities, job satisfaction and career progression for humanitarian entrants.
  3. Equitable access to government programs and services for all Australians, including refugees and people seeking asylum: All people in Australia should have equitable access to government programs and services. This means that all services, not just specialised multicultural services, should ensure that barriers to participation for migrant and refugee communities are removed.
  4. Removing unconscious bias from workplaces: Removing unconscious bias and structural forms of racism through inclusive recruitment policies and equal opportunity principles in Australian workplaces and employment services. This includes implementing findings arising from the development of a National Anti-racism Framework by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
  5. Targeted investment in specialist refugee employment services: Targeted funding for refugee settlement and specialist providers to provide tailored support based on practices that have proven effective in supporting refugees to navigate settlement and employment transitions.
  6. Improving work rights and employment services for people seeking asylum: The Australian Government should ensure that all people seeking asylum remain on a visa with work rights while they remain in the country, including while they are seeking review of their decision in the AAT, ART or federal courts. This includes allowing people seeking asylum to access Workforce Australia to ensure they can support themselves while their immigration status is resolved.

 

Photo: Over 120 representatives from governments, NGOs, the UN and refugee-led organisations arrived in Sydney for the global Working Group on Resettlement. Above is a site visit hosted by refugee-led organisations with members of the Assyrian community in their traditional cultural dress. Photography by Marshal Yosufi.

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