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2015-2016 consultations

From October till December 2014, RCOA conducted local consultations around Australia to gathering input to inform its submission to the Minister and Department on Australia’s 2015-16 Refugee and Humanitarian Program. The community consultations sought feedback on three key issues:

  • Australia’s response to international refugee needs
  • Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program
  • Implications of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program on other portfolios
Boy in red shirt on crowded bus

Executive summary

International needs

The latest statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that the number of people forcibly displaced due to persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations is now at the highest level seen since the end of World War II. As at 31 December 2013, more than 51 million people were forcibly displaced, of whom 16.7 million were refugees and 1.2 million were asylum seekers. More than half of the world’s UNHCR-mandated refugees came from just three countries: Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. In addition, UNHCR estimates that at least 10 million people were affected by statelessness in 2013.

Three key protection challenges emerged or were the focus of international discussions and action this year: (1) protection concerns relating to people making dangerous journeys by sea; (2) addressing statelessness, and (3) responding to the Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crises. In addition, many of the protection challenges that were highlighted in RCOA’s annual submissions in previous years remain equally relevant today. These include: the need for wealthy nations not to turn away from protecting refugees at a time of increasing global displacement; access to prompt refugee status determination procedures; the ongoing need to find solutions for those in protracted refugee situations; ensuring the physical security of vulnerable refugees; preventing further instability in countries at greatest risk; developing alternatives to detention; making refugee resettlement more effective as a strategic tool; and creating more avenues for refugees to support themselves.

During RCOA’s consultations, refugee community members highlighted difficult conditions, hardship and dangers faced by people fleeing persecution, describing in detail the serious risks and insecurity in countries of refugee origin and barriers to securing effective protection and accessing durable solutions in countries of asylum. In addition to offering resettlement places, consultation participants identified a range of other strategies which Australia could adopt to address key protection issues or enhance existing responses, including aid initiatives, international advocacy and regional cooperation.

During 2013, 71,411 refugees from 69 countries of origin were resettled from 80 countries of asylum to 25 countries of resettlement through UNHCR’s referral processes. Another 27,015 refugees were resettled through processes not involving UNHCR. For many refugees, resettlement is a highly appropriate solution to the protracted displacement of many refugees but there are far too few resettlement places available for the millions of refugees who need them. Fewer than 1% of the refugees under UNHCR’s mandate get access to resettlement each year. Of those identified conservatively by UNHCR as being in need of resettlement, more than 85% are not resettled.

With global resettlement needs now outstripping available places by a factor of more than ten to one, there has been considerable ongoing discussion about ways to make the most effective use of the 80,000 resettlement places pledged by governments for the coming year. In RCOA’s consultations and international discussions on resettlement this year, participants have highlighted the importance of resettling refugees who are the most vulnerable or in the gravest danger; exploring options for opening up additional resettlement opportunities wherever possible; maintaining a balance between current emergences and protracted situations; using resettlement as a means of sharing the responsibility for refugee protection more equitably; and exploring ways to use resettlement as a strategic tool to achieve protection dividends for refugees who will not have the opportunity to resettle.

In our annual submission over the past three years, RCOA has outlined six principles for the Australian Government’s response, based on feedback from community consultations. Responding to community views that the scale of the Syrian crisis requires an additional response, we offer seven principles relevant for the planning of the 2015-16 Refugee and Humanitarian Program:

  1. The need for resettlement to be made widely available as a durable solution.
  2. A focus on resettling the most vulnerable.
  3. An emphasis on maintaining family unity.
  4. The strategic use of resettlement to promote broader refugee protection.
  5. The need to balance resettlement needs in different regions.
  6. An additional response to protection needs in large-scale emergency situations.
  7. A coherent overarching government strategy for refugee protection.

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

As in previous years, there were strong calls across the country for a significant increase in the size of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Many participants again expressed disappointment that the program had been reduced in size despite an escalation in global needs. Several participants called for intake to be restored to 20,000 places annually, with some calling for further increases to up to 30,000 places annually given the scale of current global needs. A number of participants also highlighted the fact that the settlement sector had increased its capacity to support the increased intake in 2012-13 and the sudden contraction in the size of the program has resulted in a substantial loss on the taxpayer-funded investment in the settlement services sector.

One of the most significant changes to the composition of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program over the past year has been the dramatic increase in the number of Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) visa grants. While the increase in SHP visas was generally welcomed by consultation participants (particularly as a means of expanding family reunion opportunities), some expressed concerns about the impacts of this change on settlement patterns. The feedback gathered suggests that the increased emphasis on SHP visa grants has resulted in a larger proportion of refugee and humanitarian entrants arriving in more established settlement areas at the expense of smaller or emerging settlement areas, resulting in significant fluctuations and inconsistency in settlement patterns. Concern was expressed that these fluctuations were hampering advance planning and could result in significant loss of skills, expertise and human resources from the sector as providers are compelled to reduce staff numbers in order to survive financially.

As in previous years, consultation participants raised a number of concerns relating to the Community Proposal Pilot (CPP). These included the high fees, the inclusion of the CPP quota within the existing Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake, the lack of a settlement support from services in cases of family breakdown and prioritised processing. Many also commented that the high costs of the program and significant responsibilities of proposers placed newer communities at a disadvantage and hampered the involvement of the wider community, religious groups and refugee community organisations in the CPP. While there has been significant criticism of the program, a large number of community members stressed their desire to be more involved in the sponsoring and settlement of new arrivals. Many established communities have indicated they have the capacity, networks and resources to provide support to new arrivals, yet felt the high fees and strict requirements of the CPP are prohibitive. Those consulted recommended that in the up-front costs of the CPP be significantly reduced and the fees associated with social security be replaced with an assurance of support model.

Issues relating to family reunion were raised in almost every consultation. Community members and service providers across Australia continued to highlight the devastating psychological, economic and social impacts of family separation, with a number expressing the view that successful settlement was not possible without family reunion. While the increase in SHP visas was generally welcomed by consultation participants as a means of facilitating greater access to family reunion, many also drew attention to the challenges associated with this increase (such as the varying quality of on-arrival support provided by proposers). It was also evident from the feedback received that not all communities had benefited from the increase in the SHP quota, with some (particularly people from African countries) reporting ongoing difficulties in accessing SHP visas.

Participants in many consultations raised a range of ongoing concerns relating to the processing of applications for family reunion and unreasonably restrictive eligibility requirements. Many expressed confusion and frustration about prolonged delays in processing and the limited or lack of information communicated to applicants about the reasons for these delays or the progress of their applications. Concerns were also raised about the restrictive definition of family used to assess and prioritise family reunion; difficulties in sourcing documentation or evidence to substantiate family relationships; denial of family reunion opportunities to people who had not been formally registered as refugees; and the high cost of family reunion, particularly for people sponsoring family members under the family stream of the Migration Program. A number of consultation participants who had been resettled in Australia reported receiving unrealistic or incorrect information before their arrival about their likely prospects of family reunion. This appeared to be a particularly significant issue for Afghan Locally Engaged Employees resettled on subclass 201 visas.

A significant number of consultation participants expressed serious concerns about restrictions on eligibility for family reunion for people who arrived in Australia as asylum seekers by boat. It was felt that the change to processing priorities, whereby applications lodged by people who arrived by boat would be afforded the lowest priority, was an unnecessarily punitive measure likely to have serious negative consequences for people settling in Australia (and their family members living in precarious situations overseas). Some participants also reported delays in family reunion resulting from the suspension of visa grants to people living in countries affected by Ebola.

Post-arrival support

Refugee community members and service organisations were keen to reflect on the changes in post-arrival settlement support that have occurred over the past 12 months and provided rich, thoughtful and useful ideas and recommendations about how to improve settlement outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants and how to maintain the high standard of Australia’s internationally-recognised settlement programs.

Key settlement challenges highlighted in this year’s consultations included:

  • Employment, with participants again highlighting the inadequacy of the Job Services Australia program in supporting refugee and humanitarian entrants to secure sustainable employment and expressing concern about the possible withdrawal of specialised employment services, which were seen to be far more effective for these groups.
  • Education and training, with participants raising ongoing concerns about the experiences of young people from refugee backgrounds in the secondary education system (particularly those of post-compulsory school age) and a range of issues relating to tertiary education.
  • English language tuition, with concerns including the limited flexibility within the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP) to respond to the diverse needs of students, the inadequacy of the eligibility period of 510 hours and the implications of moving the AMEP to the Department of Industry, which participants feared may undermine the program’s settlement focus and its links with other settlement programs administered by the Department of Social Services.
  • Health, with participants again reporting limited use of interpreters my medical professionals, as well as citing concerns about potential increases to the cost of health care and noting the negative mental health impacts of Australian policies (such as prolonged indefinite detention, denial of work rights and restrictions on family reunion).
  • Housing, with participants raising concerns about the competitiveness of the housing market, lack of affordable rental accommodation and discrimination from real estate agents. Community members also reported being forced to move further away from metropolitan areas in order to find affordable housing, to areas with limited employment opportunities and settlement services.
  • Income and cost of living, with participants noting that Centrelink payments were insufficient for families to live off (while also commenting that they did not want to rely on social welfare benefits) and expressing concerns about budget measures such as changes to unemployment benefits, the Medicare co-payment and changes to university funding which were seen to have a potentially disproportionate impact on refugee and humanitarian entrants.
  • Family conflict, with participants expressing concern about intergenerational conflict and calling for more culturally appropriate responses to this issue (including from state-based child protection services); and raising issues regarding domestic abuse within newly arrived refugee communities and the lack of cultural awareness among mainstream services that support women in these situations.
  • Racism, prejudice and discrimination, with recent events (such as the Ebola crises, acts of terrorism and international conflicts) seen as having led to an increase in racist acts directed towards people from refugee backgrounds, with negative consequences for the positive settlement of affected individuals and communities.
  • Regional settlement, with service providers highlighting the significant impacts of fluctuations in settlement patterns on regional areas, the untapped potential of some regional areas and the need to ensure adequate support for new arrivals and the local community.
  • Citizenship, with community members noting that limited literacy skills and the significant cost of citizenship applications can present barriers for people from refugee backgrounds.
  • A range of issues and challenges affecting specific groups of refugee and humanitarian entrants, including people with disabilities, women and young people.

The transfer of responsibility for settlement services from the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to other portfolios was generally seen as a positive move by service providers. Many commented that the changes have separated settlement issues from the immigration and asylum debate, resulting in a more positive environment for service providers and refugee and humanitarian entrants. It was also anticipated that moving settlement programs to other portfolios would create a more people-centred approach to settlement. However, others were concerned that other departments are less likely to be experienced in dealing with refugee issues and thus may take some time to develop an understanding of the complex needs of refugee and humanitarian entrants. Service providers also expressed concern that communication from a number government departments had decreased significantly since the machinery of government changes, which has in turn impacted on the delivery and planning of settlement services. In addition, service providers raised concerns about the increasing focus of settlement programs on employment to the potential detriment of other settlement needs.

In the last year, there have been substantial changes to a number of funding arrangements for settlement services, including the wide-ranging Department of Social Services grants process and changes to reporting requirements. Many service providers welcomed the latter, believing that it will reduce red tape and enhance efficiency. However, others were concerned about changes in the approach to funding which may result in smaller or more specialised services missing out on funding. A large number of service providers and community organisations expressed their concern with the new approach to the funding of settlement services, especially the competitive tendering process, the complexities of the application, the need for multiple applications and the short timeframes in which to make the applications. Many service providers also called for longer and more secure funding for settlement services. The importance of involving refugee community organisations in the delivery of settlement services has been highlighted over a number of years and was also raised in this year’s consultations, with participants calling for additional funding and support for refugee community organisations (including support to apply for Settlement Grants funding) to continue providing vital support to their communities.

As in previous years, community members and service providers highlighted the inflexibility in the eligibility periods for settlement services, with a number of participants recommending that the current eligibility model be replaced with a needs-based assessment process. Specific concerns were expressed about the withdrawal of migration advice from Settlement Grants funding, particularly in regards to its impact on access to family reunion. Some concerns were also raised in relation to the information provided to resettled refugees prior to their arrival in Australia and the impact that this information had on their settlement experience.

There was considerable concern among consultation participants about the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), with many expressing confusion and uncertainty about the implications of the proposed visa regime and the entitlements of TPV holders. There was consensus about the need for TPV holders to have greater access to settlement services, with many participants suggesting that it was counter-productive to restrict access to settlement support services given that this would inhibit successful settlement and create additional difficulties over the longer term. There was also great concern that the denial of access to funded settlement services would shift the burden of supporting often vulnerable people onto refugee communities and unfunded community organisations.

The temporary nature of TPVs and the proposed Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) and the denial of access to family reunion were both highlighted as having a particularly negative impact on health, wellbeing and settlement outcomes. Several services reminded RCOA of the comprehensive research and evidence available on the negative impacts of the previous TPV regime. Other consultation participants indicated that these findings concurred with their own experiences, either as former TPV holders themselves or as support workers.

Participants also highlighted specific concerns about the proposed SHEV regime, describing it as unfair, unreasonable and unlikely to work. The primary concern was that the protection element of the visa was surrendered in favour of a focus on productivity, in that eligibility for the visa related primarily to participation in education or paid employment rather than the strength of their protection claims. Community members were also disturbed that people who had faced great trauma, prolonged periods in closed detention and years of uncertainty would be expected to fulfil onerous and perhaps insurmountable requirements as the only way to receive permanent residency and alleviate their fears of being returned to places of persecution. There was considerable concern that regional communities often do not have the infrastructure and services to deal with the impact of refugee trauma or with other settlement issues that many SHEV holders may face, such as learning English, securing employment and finding suitable housing. Community members were also extremely worried that that the SHEV would lead to labour exploitation for the visa holders and were deeply disturbed by the lack of assurance that SHEV holders would be able to access a permanent visa even if they fulfil all of the requirements of their initial five-year SHEV.

Our recommendations

Recommendation 1

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government 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, culturally isolated groups of refugees (e.g. small groups of African refugees in South and South-East Asia), LGBTI 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.

Recommendation 2

In view of pressing needs across the African continent, RCOA recommends that the Australian Government ensure that the 2015-16 regional target for resettlement from Africa be set at no lower than 25% of the offshore program.

Recommendation 3

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government and other resettlement states work with 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.

Recommendation 4

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review the definition used to assess eligibility for the Woman at Risk program to bring it into line with the definition used by in UNHCR (which does not exclude women who have the support of a male relative).

Recommendation 5

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government:

  • 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;
  • reinstate the Displaced Persons Program;
  • work with diaspora communities in Australia and people living in refugee communities overseas to identify urgent protection needs in countries of origin and asylum and develop and implement strategies to respond to these needs; and
  • provide additional funding to UNHCR, given the increasing numbers of displaced people worldwide and UNHCR’s critical role in coordinating humanitarian responses to displacement.

Recommendation 6

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with affected communities, review recent changes to banking regulations to ensure that communities in Australia are able to continue to provide critical financial support to families and communities living overseas.

Recommendation 7

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, in its capacity as a member of the UN Security Council, 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; and
  • develop a comprehensive response to the growing Syrian refugee crisis.

Recommendation 8

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with UNHCR and non-government organisations working with refugees, develop a strategy for how its diplomatic and aid efforts can be targeted to support incremental improvements in the protection and support of refugees and asylum seekers in South-East Asia and South Asia, as part of a long-term vision for an Asia-Pacific regional agreement on refugee protection.

Recommendation 9

RCOA recommends that, in its capacity as co-chair of the Bali Process, revive efforts to operationalise the Regional Cooperation Framework agreed to by Bali Process members in March 2011.

Recommendation 10

RCOA recommends that the Refugee and Humanitarian Program be immediately restored to 20,000 places annually, delinked from onshore permanent Protection Visa grants.

Recommendation 11

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, in light of escalating global protection needs, consider further expanding the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to between 25,000 and 30,000 places annually.

Recommendation 12

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government consider establishing an Emergency Response contingency quota over and above the annual Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake to provide additional capacity to respond to urgent protection needs during emergency situations, such as the current crisis in Syria.

Recommendation 13

RCOA recommends that the upfront cost of the Community Proposal Pilot be significantly reduced and the associated ‘safety net’ costs replaced with an ‘assurance of support’ model.

Recommendation 14

RCOA recommends that the annual quota for the Community Proposal Pilot or any replacement program be delinked from the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

Recommendation 15

RCOA recommends that funding be made available for support services for people proposed under the Community Proposal Pilot in cases of emergency or relationship breakdown, to be taken out of the assurance of support if required.

Recommendation 16

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government work with refugee community organisations in Australia to clarify the role of Supporting Community Organisations in the Community Proposal Pilot and facilitate greater involvement of these organisations in the Pilot.

Recommendation 17

RCOA recommends the Department of Immigration and Border Protection conduct a public review of and consultation on the Community Proposal Pilot.

Recommendation 18

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government overhaul the family reunion options for refugee and humanitarian entrants to Australia by developing a “Humanitarian Family Reunion Program” that is separate from the Refugee and Humanitarian Program and the family stream of the Migration Program. RCOA recommends that this Humanitarian Family Reunion Program be developed in consultation with former refugee community members and organisations, peak bodies and relevant service providers.

Recommendation 19

In the absence of a separate Humanitarian Family Reunion Program, RCOA recommends that the Australian Government 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; and
  • considering applications lodged by people who are not formally registered as refugees with UNHCR or host governments but otherwise meet the eligibility criteria.

Recommendation 20

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government 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.

Recommendation 21

RCOA recommends that all Special Humanitarian Program visa holders receive routine needs assessments during the initial period of settlement to ensure that they are receiving adequate on-arrival support.

Recommendation 22

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review its practice of encouraging refugees who are eligible for resettlement in Australia to apply for Special Humanitarian Program visas rather than Refugee visas, so as to avoid undermining the successful settlement of new arrivals.

Recommendation 23

RCOA recommends that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection review its procedures for communicating with visa proposers and applicants to ensure that clear information and updates are regularly provided on progress with the processing of applications.

Recommendation 24

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government respond to the significant community concern about the lack of access to the Special Humanitarian Program for refugees outside of the Middle East by separating Syrian resettlement from the SHP (in line with Recommendation 12) or by increasing the size of the SHP as part of a larger overall Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

Recommendation 25

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review the definition of “family” used to assess and prioritise family reunion applications to bring it into line with the definition used in UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook.

Recommendation 26

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review the information on family reunion opportunities provided to refugees prior to resettlement in Australia (including through the Australian Cultural Orientation program) to ensure its accuracy and enable refugees to make informed decisions about resettlement.

Recommendation 27

RCOA recommends that:

  • current restrictions on access to family reunion opportunities for Protection Visa holders who arrived by boat (including changes to processing priorities) be immediately removed.
  • 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.

Recommendation 28

RCOA recommends that the current suspension of visa grants to people living in countries affected by Ebola be lifted and replaced with an individualised risk assessment process.

Recommendation 29

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government restore funding for professional migration advice services under the Settlement Grants program to support refugee and humanitarian entrants in lodging family reunion applications.

Recommendation 30

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government seek to ensure greater consistency in settlement patterns so as to support the maintenance of quality settlement support services across Australia, including in smaller settlement areas.

Recommendation 31

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government develop a new regional settlement strategy, assessing potential and established regional areas as settlement locations, working with regional providers to plan and prepare for new humanitarian settlers, and ensuring sufficient numbers of referrals are made within each intake year to retain capacity and momentum in regional settlement locations.

Recommendation 32

RCOA recommends that the current time-limited eligibility period for settlement services be replaced with an individualised needs assessment process.

Recommendation 33

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government abolish Temporary Protection Visas and grant permanent visas to all people who currently hold Temporary Protection, Temporary Humanitarian Concern or Temporary Safe Haven visas.

Recommendation 34

If Recommendation 33 is not implemented, RCOA recommends that:

  • All Temporary Protection Visa and Special Humanitarian Enterprise Visa holders be granted access to settlement services on the same basis as permanent refugee and humanitarian visa holders.
  • The transitional support provided under the Status Resolution Support Services program following the grant of a Temporary Protection Visa be extended to at least six weeks, with extensions available on a needs basis.
  • Overseas travel restrictions on Temporary Protection Visa and Special Humanitarian Enterprise Visa holders be lifted.
  • Family reunion options be considered for Temporary Protection Visa and Special Humanitarian Enterprise Visa holders, to facilitate successful settlement and provide safe pathways to protection for people living in precarious or dangerous situations overseas.

Recommendation 35

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection develop a comprehensive communications strategy to explain the implications of Temporary Protection Visas to both visa holders and service providers.

Recommendation 36

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government consider options for designating certain industries in any location as fulfilling the eligibility criteria for the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa.

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