Children at bottleneck

Children wait in line for food at the Idomeni border crossing between Greece and the Former Yugoslav
Republic of Macedonia. People join long queues that can stretch for hundreds of meters in order to get a
simple sandwich. Th
e latest figures show that 36% of the refugees arriving in Europe in 2016 are children, and
many of them have been separated from their parents. Photo by UNHCR

Consultation on the 2017-2018 Refugee and 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 Immigration and Border Protection on the operation of this Program.

In April 2017, the Department published a Discussion Paper inviting submissions on the Program. The Refugee Council of Australia provided its submission on 19 May 2017. Submissions are now closed.

Our submission

RCOA’s submission is informed by the ideas and expertise of individuals and organisations from across Australia: people who have settled here having survived the refugee journey, those who have applied for protection, and those who support them.

Thanks to the contribution of our members and supporters, in 2016 RCOA funded a broad national consultation to inform this and other submissions that we make to the Australian Government. Between July to December 2016, we conducted 63 face-to-face consultations with service providers and members of refugee communities across all states and territories of Australia, including 11 in regional areas. We held 12 consultations targeting particular groups, including women, young people, people seeking asylum, and specific refugee communities. We also held two national teleconferences focusing on mental health issues and on regional and rural settlement. We also received 4 written submissions and 41 survey responses.

In total, we spoke to over 600 people, including a wide range of organisations and communities. We would also like to thank the 28 organisations that hosted these consultations for us, and the small army of volunteers who helped us transcribe the notes.

We believe strongly that the insights and views of those participants are both necessary and valuable in the consideration of Australiaís contribution to protection, in Australia and overseas. We will be using this information to inform our core policy work, including reports and submissions.

International refugee needs

The needs are greater than ever

More people are now forcibly displaced by persecution, conflict, violence and human rights violations than at any time since the end of World War II. As at 31 December 2015, more than 65 million people were forcibly displaced. Of these, 21.3 million were refugees and 3.2 million people were seeking asylum. More than half of the world’s UNHCR-mandated refugees came from just three countries: Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia. In addition, more than half of the people displaced are children.

Three key protection challenges were the focus of international discussions and action this year: the protection of children and young people; the need for local, national and global responsibility-sharing, and the response to the Syrian and Iraqi humanitarian crises.

Previous challenges identified in our annual submissions continue to be relevant today. These include:

  • the need for Australia, as a wealthy nation, to do more to protect refugees and to show leadership both in the region and in the global context
  • access to timely refugee status determination (RSD) 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
  • finding alternatives to immigration detention
  • using refugee resettlement more strategically, and
  • creating more avenues for refugees to support themselves.

Our consultations with refugee community members highlighted the challenges and dangers faced by people fleeing persecution. They described the serious risks and insecurity in their countries of origin, and the barriers to securing effective protection and accessing durable solutions in countries of asylum.

What should be done?

They identified a range of strategies other than resettlement which Australia could adopt to address key protection issues or enhance existing responses, including aid initiatives, international advocacy and regional cooperation.

For many refugees, resettlement is a highly appropriate solution. However, there are far too few resettlement places available. 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. This situation will also be seriously affected by the US Government’s considerable reduction in resettlement places in the coming years.

How should we make the most effective use of this small number of resettlement places? Discussions at home and abroad highlight the importance of:

  • resettling the most vulnerable
  • opening up other resettlement opportunities
  • 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 improve protection for those who are not resettled.

In our annual submission over the past five years, RCOA has outlined seven 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 2017-18 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, and
  7. A coherent overarching government strategy for refugee protection

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

Size of the Program

At a time of overwhelming need, Australia can and should do more by increasing its intake of people under the Refugee and Humanitarian Program. This was the overwhelming view of participants in our consultations.

The additional intake of people from Syria and Iraq in 2016-2017 demonstrates that Australia has the capacity to resettle 22,000 people in one year. Despite the ongoing need and indeed the escalation of conflict in the past year, this is scheduled to drop back to 16,250 places in 2017-18.

Sustaining a higher intake is not only the right thing to do, but will be more efficient and effective for those who are resettled. Service providers highlighted that significant fluctuations in the intake disrupts service delivery and imposes costs on organisations. Instead, participants recommended that the Refugee and Humanitarian Program continue to increase at a consistent level.

Composition of the Program

Participants expressed concerns that certain countries and backgrounds were underrepresented, and that there was too much focus on resettling those with community links in Australia. This was the result of an increased reliance on the Special Humanitarian Program and the requirement that those resettled through the program have links to the Australian community. This means that those who are particularly vulnerable and are without community links to Australia are unable to access resettlement.

The emphasis on resettling people with community links has also seen more people settling in metropolitan areas, while regional areas face dwindling arrivals. Concern was also expressed that refugee crises other than from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq were being neglected.

Participants also called for a separate Children at Risk program for unaccompanied minors and other children at risk with their families. Australia is well placed to resettle unaccompanied minors, with the Unaccompanied Humanitarian Program already established to support young people.

Other pathways to protection

As in previous years, concern was expressed with the high cost of the Community Proposal Pilot and its allocation of places falling within the existing Refugee and Humanitarian Program. With the expansion of the program and the development of the Community Support Program, participants called for the program to be separated from the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) and the Refugee Program.

Participants also called for the Department to consider alternative funding models. Participants highlighted the success of the Canadian private sponsorship program, and called for the Australian Government to follow Canada’s lead in resettling over 15,000 privately sponsored refugees in a year.

There were also calls for the Australian Government to explore alternative pathways to protection, including the use of skilled and student visas for people from refugee backgrounds. These alternatives could be developed through existing visa systems, or through the Community Support Program. However, those consulted stressed the importance of ensuring that such alternative pathways add to, rather than substitute for, the places in the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

Family reunion remained one of the most pressing issues for refugee communities in Australia. Participants highlighted barriers to family reunion, including lengthy delays, high costs, and difficulties affording migration agents. The discriminatory restrictions on family reunion for people who arrived by boat was highlighted across Australia, with participants expressing concern about extended delays in gaining citizenship for this group of people.

Finally, significant concern was expressed across Australia regarding Temporary Protection Visas and Safe Haven Enterprise Visas. Participants noted the detrimental impact the insecurity created by these visas has on people’s ability to settle in Australia, including on their mental health.

Our recommendations

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), 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.

Increasing resettlement from Africa

In view of pressing needs across the African continent, the Australian Government should ensure that the 2017-18 regional target for resettlement from Africa be 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.

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
  • 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.

Develop a whole-of-government approach to promoting protection

The Australian Government should develop a cross-portfolio approach to promoting the protection of refugees and working with other states to explore options to promote:

  • peace in countries of origin, particularly states from which the number of refugees and asylum seekers is increasing (e.g. Pakistan, Burma)
  • reconciliation processes in countries where there is movement towards peace and possibilities for the eventual safe voluntary return of refugees (e.g. Burma, Sri Lanka)
  • access to some form of legal status, alternatives to detention, work rights, education and health for refugees in countries of asylum, particularly in South East Asia, and
  • cooperation between resettlement states which even more actively engages with host states on other forms of durable solutions.

Convene a forum to advance 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 this integrated response to displacement, including consideration of the roles of aid, diplomacy, capacity-building and resettlement.

Provide international leadership on displacement

The Australian Government should, as part of its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights 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.

Revive the Regional Cooperation Framework

The Australian Government should, 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.

Establish a contingency quota for emergency responses

The Australian Government should establish 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, the escalating violence for Rohingya people, and the continued conflict in South Sudan.

Restore the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to 20,000 places

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

Expand the Refugee and Humanitarian Program in light of needs

The Australian Government should, in light of escalating global protection needs, consider further expanding the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to 30,000 places annually.

Introduce a program to protect children at risk

The Australian Government 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.

Conduct routine needs assessments for people settling

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

Review practice of encouraging Special Humanitarian Program visas

The Australian Government should 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.

Review communications with visa applicants and proposers

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection should 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.

Significantly reduce cost of the Community Support Program

The upfront cost of the Community Support Program should be significantly.

Set quota for Community Support Program outside the existing Program

The annual quota for the Community Support Program should be separate from the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

Fund support in case of breakdown of relationship under CSP

Funding should be made available for support services for people proposed under the Community Support Program in cases of emergency or relationship breakdown.

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. 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:

  • considering applications lodged by people who are not formally registered as refugees with UNHCR or host governments but otherwise meet the eligibility criteria
  • 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

Alternative migration pathways

RCOA recommends that, in conjunction with refugee community members, industry advisors, and service delivery organisations, the Australian Government develop a suite of alternative migration pathways for people to receive protection via other migration products or processes. These alternative pathways must be in addition to and not in place of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

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 Immigration and Border Protection 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.

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