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Consultations for the 2018-2019 Humanitarian Program

For more than 25 years, the Refugee Council of Australia has been gathering community views on the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Every year, we conduct a series of consultations across the country to provide feedback to the Department of Home Affairs (formerly the Department of Immigration and Border Protection) on the operation of this Program.

In April 2018, the Department published a Discussion Paper inviting submissions on the Program. The Refugee Council of Australia provided its submission on 25 May 2018. Submissions are now closed.

Executive summary

In 2015, when the Australian Government responded generously to the crises in Syria and Iraq by offering another 12,000 places to people fleeing conflict from those places, Australia showed it can do more. In a time of unprecedented need, we believe Australia should do more. This submission recommends that the Australian Government should build on this successful precedent to develop a more integrated, strategic, flexible and generous Humanitarian Program.

First, there are still unprecedented needs, including Syria, South Sudan and the Rohingya in Myanmar. The halving of resettlement places by the United States (US) has left a very large hole in resettlement places globally, especially in Africa. Children at risk make up an increasing proportion of refugee flows.

Vulnerability should remain the cornerstone of the Humanitarian Program. Our priorities should be aligned with those identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In recent years, the number of refugees resettled by referral through UNHCR has declined significantly. We recommend that two-thirds of the Program should be reserved for Refugee visas, which should be filled by those referred by UNHCR. We also recommend that a separate Children at Risk program should be developed to resettle those under UNHCR’s Children at Risk category.

Second, we can increase the capacity of the Humanitarian Program in several ways. We have consistently recommended that the Program be expanded progressively to 30,000 places. As well, we repeat our recommendation that there should be an emergency quota mechanism, which enables the Government to respond flexibly to emergencies such as the Syria/Iraq conflict.

Further, the demand for family reunion can be met by shifting applications to the Migration Program. We can also take grants of protection to refugees onshore outside of the Humanitarian Program. Finally, we endorse the Joint Community Sponsorship Initiative’s recommendation for a better Community Sponsorship program that builds on the support of the Australian public.

Third, we can and should think of the Humanitarian Program as part of a broader integrated strategy for protection. This should include opening up our Migration Program to people who meet our migration needs and who also need protection, such as through migration or educational visas.

We endorse the view that resettlement should be used as a strategic lever to encourage more protection for those who will not be resettled, as we have long recommended. This should include leadership in the region on the Rohingya crisis, given our long record of resettling people from key countries in the region such as Malaysia and Thailand and our significant aid efforts in Myanmar. It should also include leadership in helping promote safe and dignified conditions of return for those non-Rohingya who want to return to Myanmar. More generally, our long history of resettlement in the region and international aid efforts should be used to improve conditions for refugees in the Asia-Pacific region, so they can live and work lawfully, and can access basic services including education.

As we have said repeatedly, the best way to leverage our Humanitarian Program for broader protection would be through a whole-of-government strategy for protection, developed in close consultation with relevant stakeholders and civil society. This would bring together diplomacy, aid, capacity-building and resettlement, so we can more cohesively and effectively address the drivers of displacement. Such a strategy could form part of a broader whole-of-society National Program of Action, based on our commitments in the New York Declaration on Migrants and Refugees.

Finally, Australia’s commitments to refugee protection under our Humanitarian Program must be supported by treating refugees who come to Australia, whether by boat or plane, consistently with our international obligations. We cannot lead while we continue to punish people seeking asylum, and while we continue to create real risks of returning them to persecution or other serious harm.

Recommendations

Address priority needs including Syria and South Sudan

The Australian Government should prioritise the resettlement needs identified by UNHCR in its Humanitarian Program, including addressing as a priority the situations in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic..

Increase resettlement from Africa

In view of pressing needs across the African continent, the Australian Government should ensure that the 2018–19 regional target for resettlement from Africa is set at no lower than 25% of the offshore program.

Urgently addressing the plight of the Rohingya

The Australian Government should urgently increase the number of places available to Rohingya refugees, as a first step. It should also work with other resettlement states and the Governments of Bangladesh, Malaysia and Thailand to develop a regional strategy for facilitating resettlement and brokering other durable solutions for Rohingya refugees, including through reinstating resettlement from Bangladesh.

Expand the Humanitarian Program in light of needs

The Department of Home Affairs should, in light of escalating global protection needs, consider expanding the Humanitarian Program to 30,000 places annually.

If this recommendation is not adopted, the Humanitarian Program should, at least, remain at the 2016–17 level (21,968), including those resettled as part of the Syrian/Iraqi cohort.

Establish a contingency quota for emergency responses

The Australian Government should establish an Emergency Response contingency quota over and above the annual Humanitarian Program intake to provide additional capacity to respond to urgent protection needs during emergency situations, such as the current crisis in Syria, the escalating violence for Rohingya people, and the continued conflict in South Sudan.

Ensure that the Refugee visa sub-class is reserved for cases referred by UNHCR

The Department of Home Affairs should ensure that it is resettling the most vulnerable refugees. At least two-thirds of the Humanitarian Program should be set aside for Refugee Visas (subclass 200). This subclass should be reserved for only those who have been referred by UNHCR.

Ensure that Australia’s Humanitarian Program remains non-discriminatory

The Department of Home Affairs should ensure that the Humanitarian Program remains non-discriminatory, by selecting refugees and humanitarian entrants based on need, rather than their religion, nationality, skills, English language ability or any other attribute.

Introduce a program to protect children at risk

The Department of Home Affairs should, in consultation with key stakeholders, increase its resettlement capacity for children and adolescents at risk by establishing a Children at Risk program. The program could use Australia’s existing systems to receive and support children and adolescents at risk.

Replace the Community Support Program with a better community sponsorship model of 10,000 places

The Australian Government should replace the Community Support Program with a better model for community sponsorship for up to 10,000 places outside of the Humanitarian Program that focuses on four key principles:

  • the principle of additionality
  • priority based on need, not skills or nationality
  • guaranteed access to settlement services (however funded)
  • wide community engagement.

For a detailed proposal for a better community sponsorship model see the Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative.

Complementary migration pathways

In conjunction with refugee community members, industry advisors, and service delivery organisations, the Australian Government should develop a suite of complementary migration pathways for people to receive protection, including through skilled migration and educational pathways. These complementary pathways must be in addition to and not in place of the Humanitarian Program. This should include:

  • Introducing flexible arrangements for people without required documentation of their identity, qualification, skills and employment history
  • Providing more support for refugees to apply through the Skilled Migration Stream
  • Providing concessions to employers and refugees wishing to apply through the Skilled Migration Steam.
  • Providing settlement support to refugees and their family arriving through the Migration Program, on a needs basis.

Develop a humanitarian family reunion program

The Australian Government should develop a separate Humanitarian Family Reunion Program of 10,000 places, outside of the Humanitarian Program. This should be developed in consultation with former refugee community members and organisations, peak bodies and relevant service providers.

Enhance access to 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 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.

The Australian Government should consult with stakeholders to develop a process for assessing eligibility for concessions. There should be consultation with refugee communities, practitioners involved in providing support with family reunion applications and other relevant stakeholders to develop a process for assessing eligibility for the concessions referred to above.

Remove restrictions on family reunion for those who come by boat

The Australian Government should immediately remove current restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities for Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat (including changes to processing priorities).

If the above recommendation is not implemented, people whose applications have been affected by the introduction of retrospective changes to processing priorities be given the opportunity to withdraw their applications and receive a full refund of application fees.

Restore funding for migration advice

The Australian Government should restore funding for professional migration advice services to support refugee and humanitarian entrants in lodging family reunion applications.

Identify families in need of reunification

The Australian Government should enter into dialogue with UNHCR about establishing a process for identifying refugee families that are seeking reunification, facilitating assessment and registration in countries of asylum and prioritising them for referral for resettlement under Australia’s offshore program.

Separate the onshore and offshore components

The Department of Home Affairs should de-link the onshore component of the Humanitarian Program from the offshore component. Visas granted to onshore asylum seekers should not take places away from the offshore component. There should be no cap on the number of onshore refugee visas granted.

Abolish temporary protection visas

The Australian Government should abolish Temporary Protection Visas and grant permanent visas to all people who currently hold Temporary Protection, Temporary Humanitarian Concern or Temporary Safe Haven visas.

If this recommendation is not implemented:

  • All temporary protection visa holders be granted access to settlement services on the same basis as permanent refugee and humanitarian visa holders.
  • Transitional support provided under the Status Resolution Support Services program following the grant of a Temporary Protection Visa should be extended to at least six weeks, with extensions available on a needs basis.
  • Overseas travel restrictions should be lifted.
  • Family reunion options should be considered
  • The Department of Home Affairs should develop a comprehensive communications strategy to explain the implications of temporary protection visas to both visa holders and service providers.
  • The Australian Government should consider options for designating certain industries in any location as fulfilling the eligibility criteria for the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa.

Change the policy barring renewals of temporary protection visas

The Australian Government should abolish the policy barring renewals of temporary protection visas because a person has not applied in time.

End the punishment of people seeking asylum

The Australian Government should end the punishment of people seeking asylum, which creates real risks of breaching our international protection obligations. These policies include offshore processing, boat turnbacks, indefinite detention, changes to the definition of refugee and internal relocation, the weakening of our refugee status determination processes, and removals of people before it is clear whether they are owed international protection.

Develop a whole-of society National Program of Action

Based on the commitments made in signing the 2016 New York Declaration, the Australian Government should work with refugee and local communities, civil society organisations, State and local governments, the private sector, media and other stakeholders to develop a whole-of-society National Program of Action.

Convene a forum to advance a whole-of-government integrated response to displacement

The Australian Government should convene a forum with NGOs, peak bodies, intergovernmental bodies and other relevant stakeholders to advance the development of an integrated and strategic response to displacement, including consideration of the roles of aid, diplomacy, capacity-building and resettlement.

Fund protection efforts overseas and in our region

The Australian Government should:

  • in light of the crucial role of aid in assisting forcibly displaced people, restore Australia’s overseas aid program to its former level and develop a plan to increase overseas aid to 0.7% of Gross National Income
  • provide extra funding to UNHCR, including in our region, given the increasing numbers of displaced people worldwide and UNHCR’s critical role in coordinating humanitarian responses to displacement.
  • provide international leadership on responses to displacement

The Australian Government, in taking a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, should provide positive leadership in international action to: address the drivers of forced displacement and respond to protection needs in countries of asylum, with a particular focus on refugees living in protracted situations and/or facing serious risks to their lives and freedom.

Develop a strategic framework for resettlement

The Australian Government should develop, publish and implement a framework for Australia’s refugee resettlement program based on:

  • priority resettlement to the most vulnerable refugees, including women at risk, children at risk, culturally isolated groups of refugees (e.g. small groups of African refugees in South and South-East Asia), LGBTQI refugees and other minorities at risk
  • the promotion of family unity
  • the strategic use of resettlement, and
  • the consideration of global resettlement needs in the development of regional allocations.

Read the full submission