2013-14 submission

The 2013-14 submission was prepared in the months following the August 2012 release of the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, chaired by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston. The submission, presented to Immigration Minister Chris Bowen in January 2013, focused on three key areas: Australia’s response to international refugee needs; the recommendations of the Expert Panel and the implications for Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program; and community views on how the different pathways to protection for refugee and humanitarian entrants impact on settlement experiences.

Newly arrived Syrian refugees head towards their shelter in Za'atri refugee camp after a perilous night journey to Jordan.

Executive summary

Global refugee situation

The global refugee situation continues to be characterised by two major trends: the emergence of new crises and the intractability (and, in some cases, intensification) of existing crises. In 2011, the total number of new asylum applications received grew by 60% and 2012 saw more than 900,000 people displaced as refugees as a result of the crises in Syria, Mali and Sudan. Movements across land and sea borders continue to grow. Yemen received a record number of boat arrivals in 2012, with 107,532 people crossing the Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa.

At the same time, however, durable solutions for the long-term displaced remain elusive. Of the 10.4 million refugees under UNHCR’s mandate, 7.1 million (or more than two-thirds) are living in protracted situations. Voluntary repatriation of refugees to countries of origin has declined markedly from the peak of 2.4 million in 2002 to 532,000 in 2011. Integration of refugees in countries of asylum is very limited, with resolution of a refugee’s status through permanent residency or citizenship very rare in the main countries of asylum. Many refugees are left without legal permission to remain in the country of asylum and/or are living with the constant fear that they will be returned to their country of origin before it is safe to do so.

In 2011, only 0.7% of the world’s refugees were resettled and some refugee populations (including some of the largest in the world) had almost no access at all to resettlement. Resettlement needs continue to far outstrip available places: UNHCR has identified over 180,000 people as being in urgent need of resettlement in 2013, yet the number of resettlement places offered by governments to UNHCR will only be around 85,000. As a result of the continuing abuse of people in countries of origin and the extremely limited durable solutions for refugees in many countries of asylum, refugees and asylum seekers are, in increasing numbers, travelling further in search of protection.

RCOA’s community consultations drew hundreds of people who have lived and still have immediate family members in countries of origin for refugees and in many of the principal countries of asylum in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Among the main concerns raised were corruption and violence in origin and asylum countries, the need for greater support for countries hosting large populations and the integrity and accessibility of UNHCR application and resettlement processes in some countries.

Groups nominated as being in priority need of resettlement included refugees living in protracted situations; those who are particularly vulnerable due to factors such as gender, age, disability, risk of detention or isolation from community support; and those facing untenable living conditions in countries of asylum due to ongoing violence and insecurity, harsh conditions and lack of basic humanitarian assistance. Consultation participants also spoke of the importance of Australia and UNHCR working together to promote resettlement, with a view to increasing the pool of resettlement countries and encouraging greater sharing of responsibility with the principal host countries.

In last year’s submission, RCOA drew together the feedback on resettlement priorities into a set of principles for Australia’s response. Those principles remain relevant and, we believe, are useful in reflecting on planning for the 2013-14 Refugee and Humanitarian Program:

  • The need for resettlement to be made widely available as a durable solution, through considering further expansion of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, reviewing the numerical link between the offshore and onshore programs and advocating with other nations for an expansion of their resettlement programs.
  • A focus on resettling the most vulnerable, including those who vulnerability is heightened by disability, risk of sexual and gender-based violence, separation from adult support (in the case of unaccompanied minors), risk of detention and isolation from community support.
  • An emphasis on family unity, in light of concerns raised over a number of years regarding the impact of family separation on successful settlement in Australia.
  • The strategic use of resettlement to promote broader refugee protection, with Australia working with other resettlement nations to encourage countries of asylum to improve conditions for refugees who remain in their territory.
  • The need to balance resettlement needs in different regions, with targeted resettlement from Asia and the Middle East associated with efforts to improve regional cooperation balanced with pressing resettlement needs from the Africa region.
  • A coherent overarching government strategy for refugee protection, articulating the roles of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program, official aid and development, involvement in multilateral forums and diplomatic action in addressing refugee situations worldwide.

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

The increase in the Refugee and Humanitarian Program intake to 20,000 this year was overwhelmingly endorsed by consultation participants. Some participants encouraged the Government to expand the program further, provided any increase was matched with careful planning and additional resources for settlement services (including Settlement Grants Program [SGP] services) to maintain the excellent record Australia has in humanitarian resettlement. Participants from regional centres particularly welcomed the increase and spoke about the great potential as well as under-utilisation of regional areas as settlement locations, citing employment, housing, lower costs of living and welcoming communities as key drawcards.

In terms of composition, many consultation participants articulated reservations about the decision to allocate 12,000 Refugee visas and 8,000 to the Onshore Protection and Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) in the context of current high demand on both of the latter programs and there was continued strong opposition of the linking of the two. Others pointed to increased Refugee places leading to increasing demands on already-overwhelmed family reunion options and the prospect of even greater numbers of refugees settling in Australia who will face the prospect of protracted or indefinite separation from their loved ones.

Indeed, while the need for enhanced access to family reunion has been one of the most consistently-raised concerns in RCOA’s community consultations over many years, this year the volume of feedback on family reunion issues exceeded that of any other of the consultation themes. Across the country, people spoke about the increasing difficulties faced by refugee families separated by conflict, displacement and resettlement and the further restriction of the already-limited pathways to family reunion. Many saw this as in fundamental conflict with Australia’s obligations as a signatory to a number of international conventions which emphasise the importance of family unity, and indeed to the foundations on which Australia has been built which place family as a central building block of society.

While humanitarian family reunion has not been clearly articulated as a right or principle within Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program, the Expert Panel recommendations and subsequent policy changes have placed additional barriers in the path of families seeking to reunite. Moreover, it is no longer just extended family members facing protracted or indefinite separation but also a large number of immediate family members. Extended families now face protracted or indefinite separation due to the lack of places in the SHP and the lack of alternatives within the family stream of the Migration Program. However, the 16,300 split family applications in the SHP backlog that represent the wives and children of adult boat arrivals and the parents and siblings of unaccompanied minors, now face indefinite or protracted separation because of the reassessment of these applications, the reprioritisation of processing and lack of places in the SHP, and the difficulties in successfully applying for a family stream visa.

The devastating consequences of the lack of family reunion options were articulated clearly in almost every consultation by refugee community members and the services that support them. Ironically, one of the most commonly cited implications was that more people would be arriving by boat to seek family reunification. Other emerging trends included humanitarian entrants returning or planning to return to countries of asylum to convene with family despite the risks and costs, and reports of significant health, mental health, economic and social problems, including homelessness and destitution.

Consultation participants spoke of the need to more fully incorporate family reunion as part of the overall structure of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program in recognition of the fundamental importance of families being able to find safety together. In the absence of a clear humanitarian family reunion policy and planning, there was a call for reconsideration of how to deal practically with the significant backlog in the SHP, particularly for those affected by the most recent policy changes. These changes were widely considered to be an enormously costly, ineffective and punitive response to the problem of refugees being separated from their immediate families. The announced increase of 4,000 places in the family stream of the Migration Program, while generally welcomed, was also greeted with some reservations about whether this provides a viable pathway to humanitarian family reunion, considering the lack of concessions and barriers concerning cost, documentation and eligibility requirements and lack of access to migration advice. Many participants also warned of the implications of increasing numbers of refugees arriving in Australia on non-humanitarian visas who will not be eligible for settlement services and the implications of this further down the track.

The idea of a private sponsorship pilot was received positively by a number of participants, who saw the potential of such a program to open alternative avenues for resettlement and provide opportunities for the community to become more closely involved in the resettlement process. However, details of the private sponsorship model had not been announced at the time of consultations, so much of the discussion was hypothetical. When the Minister announced that, in the pilot phase, the visa application charges would be $20,000 to $30,000 for a family and no option for incentives was included, RCOA expressed disappointment, noting that the sponsorship pilot will not enjoy the same level of community support as a result.

Refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific

Participants in RCOA’s community consultations highlighted ongoing violence, insecurity and persecution in the region’s major countries of origin for refugees (including Burma and Sri Lanka) and insecurity and harassment in countries of asylum such as Pakistan and Syria. These concerns match those raised by NGOs in the region who spoke of the continuing focus of governments on border control, the high risk of detention and limited access to legal protection for people seeking asylum. Concern was also expressed about the difficulties faced by asylum seekers in getting access to UNHCR and the timeliness of its responses. The difficulties faced by UNHCR in operating in countries where it is barely tolerated were also noted. Refugees on the Thai-Burma border spoke of their fears that they may be forced to return Burma well before conditions have changed sufficiently for them to be able to live in safety and freedom.

Across the region, refugees are seeking to have their most basic protection needs met – access to refugee status determination, legal permission to remain where they are, freedom from detention, adequate food and shelter, the right to work, freedom from violence and access to justice, access to physical and mental health care, access to education and access to a timely durable solution. When there is no durable solution in sight and refugees have endured years without some or many of these needs being met, onward movement becomes the most viable option available.

Developments relating to regional cooperation on refugee protection through the Bali Process during 2012 have centred on the establishment of the Regional Support Office (RSO) in Bangkok and the start of work on the Office’s foundation projects, including the development of standard operating procedures on voluntary repatriation and a mapping exercise on the treatment of unaccompanied and separated children in South-East Asia. The RSO was originally conceived as a mechanism to support the operationalisation of the Regional Cooperation Framework (RCF) agreed to by Bali Process members in March 2011. Progress on the development of the RCF has been slow and needs to pick up pace significantly if it is to meet some of the most pressing needs of refugees and asylum seekers in the region. RCOA encourages the Australian Government to seek opportunities for the greater participation of civil society in the Bali Process following the acknowledgement at the Bali Process meeting in November 2012 of the potential role of civil society in policy development.

The greater focus of the Australian Government on capacity building in the region following the Expert Panel report is a welcome step. However, the reintroduction of offshore processing is likely to damage prospects for a constructive regional framework for refugee protection through modelling the deflection of responsibility for asylum seekers to other countries. Australia’s promotion in the region of immigration detention and interception has contributed to a decline in the security situation for refugees in South-East Asia, adding to the factors which lead many refugees to seek greater protection elsewhere (most particularly in Australia).

Despite these concerns, Australia is still seen in the region as a country which is better placed than most to promote serious regional discussion about refugee protection and to bring resettlement nations to the table to discuss the role that increased resettlement support could play in brokering support for serious steps towards refugee protection. Two countries who should be encouraged to contribute constructively to improved refugee protection are New Zealand and Canada which have demonstrated their fears about onward movement in the region by introducing legislation to deal with perceived threats of “mass arrivals”. In providing leadership on refugee protection in the region, Australia must, in its own policy, model the protection safeguards needed across the region. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, a regional model for refugee protection must include “the right to asylum and respect for the principle of non-refoulement; humane reception conditions, including protection against prolonged and arbitrary detention; and access to basic rights such as education, health care, and employment [and] special support for vulnerable people.”

Despite the difficult conditions across the region for refugees and asylum seekers, there are some signs of hope. Examples include: successful efforts to bail refugees out of immigration detention in Thailand; a new executive order in India which offers refugees access to long-term stay visas and the right to work; new refugee legislation in South Korea and preliminary thinking on refugee legislation in several other Asian countries; and the potential for a system of regional citizenship in South-East Asia.

Progress towards improved refugee protection will inevitably be incremental, with ratification of the Refugee Convention a long-term goal in most countries. A process over a decade or more could include the following 10 steps:

  1. Removing current barriers to existing refugee determination processes;
  2. Creating space for and supporting NGOs to provide vital services to refugees;
  3. Granting legal permission to remain while refugee status is determined;
  4. Developing alternatives to immigration detention;
  5. Granting the right to work;
  6. Providing access to basic government services, including education and health;
  7. Providing refugees with access to durable solutions;
  8. Developing national asylum legislation;
  9. Promoting ratification of the Refugee Convention; and
  10. Building regional consistency in asylum processes.

The pace of movement on regional cooperation is slow and more momentum is required, not only to get governments more actively involved in discussing the protection of refugees but also to involve a broader range of civil society representatives. The dialogue must move – and be seen to move – well beyond the interests of the Australian Government to include concerns across South East Asia and also South Asia, involving governments such as Pakistan and Bangladesh in discussions about the refugee needs they face in their territories. The March 2013 meeting of the Bali Process and the regional workshop on irregular migration by sea create opportunities to broaden the refugee protection dialogue and also to explore how civil society perspectives can be included in the discussion. One idea worth considering would be the formation of sub-regional eminent persons groups in South Asia and in South-East Asia to consider ways of addressing protection needs – an initiative probably best led by UNHCR.

The Australian Government’s focus on capacity building of NGOs in the region is welcome. There are pressing needs to support NGOs involved in supporting refugees and asylum seekers through education, health, legal advice, development of refugee leaders, support for unaccompanied minors, support programs for women and children, detention monitoring and release and community-based alternatives to detention. In addition, there is great capacity to build stronger partnerships between NGOs across borders, supporting frontline services with international expertise. Capacity building is also needed for government officials in the region, particularly in refugee status determination and the development of detention alternatives.

Offshore processing

There is no question that the appalling loss of life resulting from dangerous sea journeys to Australia necessitates an urgent and considered policy response. Feedback from consultation participants, past experience with similar policies, advice from organisations working in the region and RCOA’s own research all suggest that offshore processing is neither an appropriate nor effective way of addressing this issue.

The impact of offshore processing on the mental health of refugees and asylum seekers was raised as an issue of great concern among participants in this year’s consultations. Many had worked with former detainees or had themselves been detained, and expressed fears that people who spend prolonged periods in offshore processing facilities could experience the same mental health issues seen among long-term detainees in Australia. Some participants who worked with refugees subject to offshore processing under the Pacific Solution highlighted the “profound” mental health issues experienced by this group. A number of service providers expressed fears that the mental health impacts of offshore processing would diminish the capacity of refugees to settle successfully in Australia in the future. Particular misgivings were expressed about the impact of offshore processing on vulnerable groups, with the treatment of unaccompanied minors being a major area of concern.

Participants also expressed concern about conditions in offshore processing facilities and the services and support provided to asylum seekers residing in these facilities, citing the absence of legally-binding safeguards for people subject to offshore processing and the limited capacity of Nauru and Papua New Guinea to provide appropriate care and support to people seeking protection, including access to robust status determination procedures.

There was general consensus among consultation participants that offshore processing would not act as a deterrent to boat journeys. While participants were well aware of the risks associated with boat journeys and agreed that this issue needed to be addressed, offshore processing was not seen as an effective way of managing the problem. Many consultation participants drew attention to the issues which compel asylum seekers to undertake dangerous boat journeys, noting that refugees often had few viable alternatives available to them and are often facing immediate threats to their lives or freedom.

Many consultation participants expressed concern that the reinstatement of offshore processing and deterrence-based policies in general could have negative impacts beyond the individuals directly affected by these policies. The re-emergence of deterrence-based policies was seen as having a significant impact on negative media portrayal of refugees and asylum seekers and the tenor of the public debate on protection issues. A number of participants also felt that offshore processing could have a negative impact on protection standards across the region, arguing that Australia was setting a “bad example” for other countries. It was noted that, through eroding protections for asylum seekers arriving by boat, the Australian Government also undermined its capacity to promote greater respect for human rights in the region.

Offshore processing therefore ultimately undermines the only viable way forward, which is to work tirelessly and incrementally towards a sustainable and constructive regional framework for cooperation on refugee protection. Such a framework cannot be successful, however, so long as Australia continues to model policies which, if implemented by other countries in the region, would have disastrous consequences for people seeking protection. It is essential that Australia fundamentally reorient its policy approach to ensure a primary focus on achieving positive protection outcomes for all people fleeing persecution.

Pathways to protection and settlement

The past 24 months have seen numerous legislative, policy and program changes to the processing system and pathways to protection for asylum seekers who arrive by boat to Australia. Some of the major changes, including the expansion of community detention, the shift to one refugee status determination process (since reversed) and the release of asylum seekers from closed immigration detention into the community on bridging visas, have provided a welcome opportunity for Australia to observe the practical impact of alternatives to closed immigration detention on settlement pathways.

In reflecting on the community release of asylum seekers, two consistent messages came out of consultations:

  • Firstly, that the opportunity for people to live in the community while their protection claims are assessed instead of being held in closed detention centres is a positive and welcome move by the Government; and
  • Secondly, that the current system of protection processes and programs supporting asylum seekers is unnecessarily complex and confusing and could be improved significantly.

A number of service providers commented on the artificial and complex nature of current asylum policy, from the detention system to the community-based programs. There were consistent calls for a simplification of the systems, whereby the focus of the program is centred on the people seeking protection and a holistic approach taken to supporting them to resolve their status. A number of consultation participants called for a system based on the current mainstream service delivery platforms (e.g. Centrelink and Medicare) instead of setting up separate and complex programs. There was a general recognition in consultations from those supporting asylum seekers on bridging visas in the community that significant gaps exist that undermine a person’s ability to make the transition from detention, particularly in the case of vulnerable groups such as long-term detainees, unaccompanied minors and other young people. There were repeated calls for the need to approach support for bridging visa holders through a holistic settlement framework and to refocus the program on proven indicators of good settlement: access to education, English language training, employment, orientation and housing.

Consultation participants in every state and territory spoke about employment as the issue that posed the greatest challenge for asylum seekers on bridging visas. While there were consistent and strong messages about the willingness and readiness of asylum seekers to work, this was not matched by their ability or, in some cases, entitlement to find work. Many people called for a well-defined and strategic policy framework related to employment services for asylum seekers underpinned by the right to work. The need for education and better messaging to employers and industry bodies about the entitlements to work, skills and opportunities presented by asylum seekers was raised in consultations across many states.

The question of how to best facilitate good, regular communication across all of the departments, agencies, organisations and communities working with asylum seekers and refugees was raised as a priority in the consultations. The need for open communication between providers was listed as essential to a holistic program. In addition, given the growing number of agencies and individuals providing support and services to asylum seekers in Australia, there was recognition among consultation participants that sector capacity building is required.

Across Australia, RCOA heard consistent messages about the dire effects that prolonged immigration detention has had on people. Many participants spoke about the impact of detention on a person’s ability to function in the community as profound. Several consultation participants, on the other hand, were happy to report that the shorter the period of detention, the higher the level of autonomy, engagement and agency among asylum seekers found to be refugees.

Consultation participants shared a number of stories about asylum seekers facing continual hurdles in trying to prove their cases and the inconsistency in decision-making. Several noted the stress and anxiety that waiting for a decision causes, as well as the challenges that asylum seekers face in understanding where they are within the process. Even people that started as healthy, well-engaged clients can end up disengaging from services or school or even communication with friends as they wait for extended periods of time for a decision on their protection claim.

During the consultation period, a number of RCOA members expressed concern about the situation of refugees facing prolonged indefinite detention due to adverse security assessments. RCOA acknowledges that the Government has already taken steps to enhance review of ASIO decision-making through the appointment of an Independent Reviewer to assess adverse security findings made against refugees. As a non-statutory process, however, the Independent Reviewer model cannot provide a consistent or long-term solution to the lack of procedural fairness in decision-making on security assessments. There is also a need to explore alternative community-based arrangements for individuals who are found to pose an ongoing security risk.

Key and emerging issues

A number of emerging and long-standing issues were raised by consultation participants, particularly access to employment, education and training, health and housing. The needs of unaccompanied minors and single adult males who are arriving in Australia through the onshore stream were also identified as key issues requiring consideration in the future planning of settlement services.

As in previous submissions, the lack of recognition of the skills and qualifications of humanitarian arrivals was a common frustration expressed by participants. Strategies to better utilise the contributions of refugees included incentives for employers (modelled along the lines of similar programs to employ people with a disability or Indigenous people) and improvement to employment support services. Concerns were expressed about the precarious nature of employment for humanitarian arrivals, work safety and exploitation, while some participants raised the need for targeted training to assist people starting their own businesses.

Access to affordable and appropriate housing remains a critical issue for refugee and humanitarian entrants who are experiencing financial hardship, with reports of some people paying as much as 80% of their income on rent. RCOA heard anecdotal reports that the lack of affordable housing options was leading to social isolation as people moved away from support, overcrowding, the use of unsuitable alternative accommodation like garages, caravans and sheds, single men living with families, and homelessness.

In the area of education and training, concerns were raised about gaps in appropriate pathways for young refugees and the needs of unaccompanied humanitarian minors (UHMs) at risk of disengaging from education. Alternatives to formal English classes, like on-the-job English training and linking English with employment skills, were identified as ways to build the English language proficiency of refugees who arrive with limited education.

Many consultation participants identified an emerging need for increased health support for a large and growing group of men who have been separated from their families. Gaps were also identified in regions where the needs of people with complex health and mental health issues were not being met by existing services and resources.

Settlement planning was raised at a number of consultations where participants called for better forward planning and cooperation between Federal, State and local tiers of government. Many participants observed that State and local government-provided services were not being adequately resourced to accommodate growing populations of humanitarian arrivals. Regional service providers spoke of the benefits and challenges of regional settlement, while community members called for greater involvement of refugee communities in the delivery of settlement services.

Our recommendations

Global refugee situation

RCOA recommends that, in view of the pressing need for resettlement from Africa, the 2013-14 regional target for resettlement from Africa be set at no lower than 25% of the offshore program.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review its approach to resettling refugees who are unaccompanied minors, at risk of detention or classified as being “out of region”, giving careful consideration to the vulnerability of refugees most isolated in countries of asylum.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government work with the United States, Canada and other nations involved in the Working Group on Resettlement to explore how the host nations which have benefited most from resettlement (particularly Thailand, Nepal and Malaysia) can be encouraged to improve protection standards for refugees who remain in their territory.

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, the promotion of family unity, the strategic use of resettlement and the consideration of global resettlement needs in the development of regional allocations.

Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government consult with settlement service providers and mainstream agencies involved in providing support to refugees, to determine the additional resources necessary to ensure ongoing quality service provision (particularly SGP services) in light of the expansion of Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government:

  • Immediately end the numerical link between the onshore and offshore components of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.
  • Should the Recommendation 6(a) not be implemented, expedite the implementation of Recommendation 21 of the Expert Panel of Asylum Seekers by conducting a review of the linkage between the onshore and offshore components of the Program, to set a timeframe for the end of the linkage.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government urgently review its plans for the pilot private sponsorship program, revising the proposed visa application charge to a level more affordable for community organisations and exploring ways of providing incentives for sponsors who work together to assist newly arrived refugees towards financial self-sufficiency.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government conduct a thorough review of how humanitarian family reunion is addressed in policy and planning within the broader immigration program, with due consideration given to how to enable refugee families to be prioritised for timely reunion either within the Refugee and Humanitarian Program or in the general Migration Program.

RCOA recommends that DIAC allow the proposers of split family SHP applications subject to reassessment longer timelines for responding to letters requesting additional information. Responses received after the requested number of days should be considered by DIAC in making an assessment.

RCOA recommends that DIAC issue a clear statement about how prioritisation in the SHP will be implemented, what this will effectively mean for those deemed ‘the lowest priority’ and expected timeframes.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government reconsider the decision to remove eligibility to the SHP for refugees who arrive by boat after 13 August 2012 as a fundamental denial of the right to unity and protection for families.

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 (particularly Pakistan and Thailand) and prioritising them for referral for resettlement under Australia’s offshore Refugee Program.

RCOA recommends that DIAC consider strategies for ensuring the 4,000 additional places in the family stream of the Migration Program are quarantined for humanitarian entrants and are accessible through:

  • Introducing application fee concessions for humanitarian entrant proposers;
  • Introducing some flexibility in documentation requirements for people from refugee backgrounds;
  • Reviewing eligibility requirements that effectively exclude applicants from refugee backgrounds; and
  • Resourcing DIAC’s offshore and Australian processing offices to identify and consider applications from humanitarian entrant proposers separately from applications from non-humanitarian proposers.

RCOA recommends that DIAC implement a targeted communication strategy to increase refugee community understanding of alternative family reunion pathways.

RCOA recommends that DIAC increase short-term funding to registered Migration Agents funded through the SGP to support the reassessment of SHP split family applications in the most efficient, fair and timely fashion. RCOA also recommends that consideration be given to increasing the overall amount of funding allocated for migration advice within the SGP in the upcoming funding round.

Refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government continue to work through the Bali Process to:

  • Accelerate operationalisation of the Regional Cooperation Framework;
  • Prioritise initiatives aimed at addressing the most pressing protection challenges across the region; and
  • Foster opportunities for civil society participation, including in the activities of the Regional Support Office.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government fully implement the Expert Panel recommendation to allocate $70 million a year in additional funding for capacity building initiatives in the region, with a particular focus on funding NGOs involved in supporting refugees and asylum seekers.

RCOA recommends that UNHCR actively consider promoting the development of sub-regional eminent persons groups in South Asia and South-East Asia to consider and promote effective responses to the protection needs of refugees.

Offshore processing

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government abandon offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive by boat and return to a single statutory system of onshore processing for all asylum seekers, regardless of their mode of arrival. Should Recommendation 19 not be implemented, RCOA recommends that the Australian Government develop the following as a matter of urgency:

Clear criteria and timeframes for resettlement from offshore processing facilities;

  • Improved mechanisms to protect the rights and wellbeing of people subject to offshore processing, including basic infrastructure, legal advice and guardianship arrangements for unaccompanied minors; and
  • Arrangements for independent monitoring and oversight of status determination and resettlement processes and conditions in offshore facilities, including avenues for seeking resolution of or redress for any identified issues of concern.

Pathways to protection and settlement

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government streamline and consolidate existing support programs for asylum seekers into a holistic, consistent and client-driven service delivery framework, based on the following core principles:

  • A central focus on the needs of the client;
  • Equal access to services and support regardless of status or mode of arrival;
  • Adopting a settlement-centred model focused on outcomes such as employment, education, English language tuition, housing and orientation;
  • A focus on early intervention to ensure the best outcomes for clients;
  • Safeguards to prevent destitution and ensure resolution of all cases;
  • Basing support services on existing service delivery platforms (such as Medicare and Centrelink) where possible, to avoid unnecessary administration and duplication; and
  • Inbuilt mechanisms to facilitate regular communication between all departments, agencies, organisations and communities working with asylum seekers.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government review and streamline transition processes for refugees and asylum seekers moving through various stages of status assessment, with a particular focus on supporting vulnerable groups such as long-term detainees and unaccompanied minors.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government support asylum seekers to secure employment through:

  • Enhancing provision of employment support and other relevant services (such as English language tuition); and
  • Working with employers to raise awareness about the entitlements of Bridging Visa holders, the value of workforce diversity and strategies to support employees from refugee backgrounds.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government, in consultation with relevant service providers, develop a strategy to support capacity-building amongst groups providing support to asylum seekers in the community.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government maintain its commitment to using detention only as a last resort and for the shortest possible time by working to further reduce the amount of time spent by asylum seekers (particularly children) in closed detention facilities.

RCOA recommends that the Australian Government work towards resolving the situation of refugees subject to negative security assessments by:

  • Establishing a statutory review mechanism for security assessments made in relation to Protection Visa applicants; and
  • Exploring alternative community-based arrangements to prolonged indefinite detention for these individuals.

Read the full report