The discussion paper
The Department of Home Affairs published in late 2017 a Discussion Paper on Managing Australia’s Migration Intake. The Discussion Paper asks for recommendations to help strengthen Australia’s Migration Program now and over the long-term. Submissions have closed.
Our key points
Our submission argued that ‘complementary pathways’ should be introduced to open up places for refugees within the skilled stream of the migration program. As well, we argued for loosening certain restrictions to enhance access to family reunion.
Australia’s Migration Program provides an innovative opportunity for Australia to develop complementary pathways for refugees world-wide to receive protection. There is an opportunity to open up the Skilled Migration Stream to refugees. There is also an opportunity to include a separate humanitarian family reunion program within the Family Migration stream, which supports the reunification of refugee families.
Complementary pathways for refugee through the Skilled Migration Program
The Australian labour force can greatly benefit from the many highly skilled refugees around the world. Refugee are often highly qualified but are denied the right to work or study in countries of first asylum, and unable to access regular skilled migration channels to other countries.
As reflected in the New York Declaration, there has been significant interest in using skilled migration pathways to provide refugee access to protection.
The Refugee and Humanitarian Program (RHP) should remain the primary way in which Australia, in collaboration with UNHCR, resettles refugees. However, Australia can complement this commitment by opening up pathways through the Migration Program. In doing so, Australia can contribute to international refugee protection while also fulfilling its need for skilled migrants.
To open up this pathway, some requirements in the existing Migration Program need to be relaxed. These include: opening places for refugees within the skilled migrant stream, establishing programs that can link refugee with potential employers, and relaxing other restrictions that prevent refugees from accessing skilled migration visas.
In 2016, RCOA published an important report on family separation for refugee communities. This documented the ongoing mental anguish caused by family separation, which frequently outweighs the physical security provided by Australia.
RCOA welcomes the Australian Government’s commitment made through the New York Declaration to “consider the expansion of …flexible arrangements to assist family reunification”.
Family separation is costly for refugees and the Australian community. There is tremendous pressure on people in Australia to support relatives in refugee situations overseas. This compounds the stress of family separation and imposes a significant financial burden.
Family separation deprives people of the social and emotional support critical to positive settlement outcomes. Family reunion is often the only way to ensure their family members are safe from ongoing war, poverty and violence in their country of origin or asylum.
Family separation is also one of the leading contributors to mental health problems for refugees which contributes to an increase in mental health services and the costs involved. The trauma caused by family separation was highlighted by a Hazara man from Afghanistan:
I don’t care about myself, I’m losing my mental health. Mostly what hurts me is my family are in a very insecure place, I just recently helped them move out of those places and find a new place. I am facing insecurity with my family. My friend says I would not be able to do anything for the community because I have lost my mental health. I want my family to be better than me. I wish the Australian government would do something for these people, first those who are here, then they can help and do for other people.
Continued family separation negatively affects people’s ability to settle in Australia. It makes it difficult for them to get an education, keep stable employment and develop social networks. This has long-term implications for Australian economy as people are unable to rebuild their lives and contribute to the Australian community.
In contrast, when people can reunite with their family, they have care and support which allows them to make social and cultural connections. The Australian economy also benefits has family members in the Australian community no longer need to send money overseas to support their family members.
A lack of identification and work experience documentation
Refugees may often be without identity and documentation as they may have been denied access to these documents in their country of origin or unable to bring these documents with them. Further, proper documentation may have expired and people may be unable to renew them. Fees to renew passports may also be too costly for people.
For these reasons, the Australian Government should look at assessing people’s identity based on other evidence, such as UNHCR identity card.
Documents demonstrating work qualifications and employment history may also be difficult for people to obtain as businesses in their country may be closed, destroyed, or inaccessible. These documents may have been left behind or lost, and universities may be unable to provide proof of qualifications.
Those who may reach the requirements for Australia’s Skilled Migrant Program stream may not have information or support to apply for the migration program. They may be unaware of the requirements and lack information on the application process, and lack access to migration agent or lawyer to support them.
RCOA continues to hear from refugees who have spoken about waiting years for applications for family reunion, only to be rejected for administrative reasons. Many describe how their mental health has significantly worsened because of these delays. As well, interviews and health check requirements are often impossible for family members remaining in conflict areas.
Currently, processing of a temporary partner visa (subclass 820) visa takes over 20 months, for a dependent child (subclass 445) over eight months, and for an orphan relative visa takes over 3 and a half years. Requiring family members to remain in conflict areas this long puts them at severe risk of harm or death, often forcing them to flee for asylum. Forcing an orphaned family member to wait three and a half years is unjustified, especially when that child has no one to look after them.
High visa charges may deter many refugees from applying for skilled visas, as well as for employers wishing to sponsor them. While many businesses are keen to sponsor skilled refugees, they are often unlikely to pay the high visa costs to sponsor them. RCOA recommends the Australian Government should reduce the costs associated with skilled visas for refugee.
The high visa charge is also a significant barrier for those seeking to sponsor family members through the Family Stream. Sponsoring a partner to come costs $6,865, not including health assessments and police certificates. People often cannot afford to sponsor their parents under contributory visas as the total cost is could amount to nearly $100,000.
Sponsoring parents through the non-contributory Parent visa is extremely unlikely as the waiting time currently stands as 30 years. The family member sponsoring their parents must also pay an Assurance of Support of $10,000 for the main applicant, and $4,000 for an additional adult application as a bond which is held for 10 years. These restrictions charges make the Family Stream effectively impossible.
As one former refugee from South Sudan noted:
Even spouse visa we can’t afford that fees. Now it is $10,000 and you are not working. How can you afford $10,000 to bring your wife over? So we really need the Government to look into that issue too. Because most of refugees are on Centrelink support, so how can they afford $10,000 to bring their wife here?
Denial of family reunion for people who arrived by boat
The denial of family reunion for people who have come by boat is of pressing concern. Directive 62, introduced in 2013, placed the family reunion applications of those who arrived by boat as the lowest priority, meaning their application may never be processed. The Australian Human Rights Commission found that Directive 62 breaches Australia’s human rights obligation.
Finally, there is a lack of funded migration advice for refugee communities seeking to sponsor their family members as grants have been removed or reduced. Many applicants have made invalid applications as they have no knowledge of the legal requirements and cannot afford private migration advice.
Recommendation 1: Develop a humanitarian family reunion program
The Australian government should develop a separate Humanitarian Family Reunion Program, outside of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program and Migration Program, developed with refugee community members, organisations, and peak bodies.
Recommendation 2: Enhance family reunion
In the absence of a separate Humanitarian Family Reunion Program, the Australian Government should enhance refugee and humanitarian entrants’ access to family reunion by:
- waiving application fees or at least introducing application fee concessions for refugee and humanitarian entrants sponsoring family members under the family stream of the Migration Program
- expanding the availability of no-interest loans to assist proposers in meeting the costs of airfares and/or application fees
- introducing greater flexibility in documentation and evidence requirements under both the Refugee and Humanitarian Program and the family stream of the Migration Program
- reviewing eligibility requirements under the family stream of the Migration Program which effectively exclude applicants from refugee backgrounds
- prioritising processing of family members at immediate risk, and
- ensuring access to settlement services on arrival and exempting family from the Newly Arrived Resident’s Waiting Period.
Recommendation 3: Remove restriction on family reunion for those who come by boat
Current restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities for Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat (including changes to processing priorities) should be immediately removed.
Recommendation 4: Restore funding for migration advice
The Australian Government should restore funding for professional migration advice services under the Settlement Grants program to support refugee and humanitarian entrants in lodging family reunion applications.
Recommendation 5: Complementary migration pathways
The Australian Government develop a suite of complementary migration pathways for people to receive protection via the skilled migration program. These complementary pathways must be in addition to the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. This should include:
- Introducing flexible arrangements for people without required documentation of their identity, qualification, skills and employment history
- Providing additional support for refugees to apply through the Skilled Migration Stream
- Providing concessions to employers and refugees wishing to apply through the Skilled Migration Stream, and
- Providing settlement support to refugees and their family arriving through the Migration Program, on a needs basis.