Family separation in situations of displacement and flight are particularly common, decreasing the possibility of all family members being resettled together in a country such as Australia. Family reunion and the devastating psychological, economic and social impacts of family separation are some of the most pressing issues for refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia. In our consultations with hundreds of people from a refugee background, community members and service providers across Australia, the theme most commonly discussed has been how family separation undermines successful settlement outcomes.
Participants in our annual consultations have continued to highlight a range of challenges affecting people in Australia who are seeking to sponsor family members to join them in Australia. While some of these challenges are preexisting and have been raised over many years (such as prolonged delays in processing of applications, the restrictive definition of family and the limited availability of affordable migration advice), others have resulted from more recent policy changes (such as the introduction of new restrictions affecting people who arrived in Australia by boat).
Our new report summarises both the continuing and new concerns expressed to the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) during our annual national consultations and other discussions with service providers and refugee community members. It proposes alternatives for positive reforms that will benefit those seeking protection in Australia and the humanitarian arrivals and ultimately enhance the outcomes for our entire community.
Our key concerns
Impact of protracted family separation
A common refrain from people from a refugee background who have participated in RCOA’s consultations is that the physical security offered by Australia is offset by ongoing mental anguish of family separation. People commonly refer to their serious concerns for the safety and welfare of family members left behind. A former refugee living in Melbourne, for example, reported that her brother had been kidnapped and killed in Iraq after having twice had a visa application refused by Australia.
The effects of family separation include significant psychological, social, and financial costs, and effects on social cohesion.
Special Humanitarian Program
The primary avenue through which people from a refugee background seek to reunite with family members under the Refugee and Humanitarian Program is the Special Humanitarian Program (SHP). Key concerns raised about this program include:
- prolonged waiting periods
- a restrictive definition of ‘family’
- unrealistic requirements for formal documents and evidence
- significant financial costs
- expectations by relatives, and
- the lack of affordable legal advice.
Community Proposal Pilot
Since June 2013, up to 500 places per year have become available within the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to people sponsored under the Community Proposal Pilot.
Feedback received from participants in RCOA’s annual consultations suggest that the CPP is being seen and used as a more expensive version of the SHP, rather than an attempt to increase the involvement of the community in the settlement process, therefore taking the program away from its original intention.
For some proposers, the CPP expedites family reunion but leads to destitution. People highlighted the negative impacts of the lack of a “safety net” for those resettled under the CPP in cases of relationship breakdown or where the circumstances of the proposer change.
However, a number of participants highlighted the potential of the CPP to provide a useful alternative pathway for those who have the capacity to meet some of the costs associated with resettlement, provided that some aspects of the program are reformed. Additionally, the CPP could galvanise the existing community support for refugees in a practical manner, by engaging community organisations, churches, religious bodies and diaspora communities, as is evidenced in the Canadian scheme.
A significant area for improvement is to ensure the principle of additionality is upheld – that is, that privately sponsored refugees are in addition to government settled refugees.
Family stream of the Migration Program
Sponsoring family members under the family stream of the Migration Program is an option unavailable to many people from a refugee background due to the extended waiting period associated with some visas and the increasingly high cost of visa application fees; a cost that is in addition to other expenses associated with sponsoring family members listed above.
The recent report of the Productivity Commission and plans for introduction of new temporary parent visas all indicate a move away from offering a permanent family reunion pathway for parents and their Australian children, unless they are able to pay an extraordinary fee. These potential developments and changes could make the family stream of the Migration Program a less likely family reunion option for families from a refugee background.
Effective denial of family reunion to refugees who arrived by boat
People who arrived by boat without a visa after 13 August 2012 are not eligible to propose any family members and will only be eligible to apply for a Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) or a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV). Holders of Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) and Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) are barred from sponsoring family members and from becoming citizens.
For those who arrived before 13 August 2012, their family visa applications under the SHP, CPP or family stream of the Migration Program are given the lowest priority for processing. This effectively denies this group any possibility of family reunion, as the significant demand for family reunion means that their applications will never be processed.
In consultation with practitioners involved in providing support to people from a refugee background with family reunion applications, as well as migration agents, peak bodies and refugee community members, RCOA has developed the following proposal for a new approach to humanitarian family reunion.
The essence of this proposal is to implement measures which would make the family visa stream more accessible to people from a refugee background, with a view to shifting split family applications from the Refugee and Humanitarian Program to the Migration Program. This could be achieved through:
Recommendation 1: Allocating at least 5,000 visas under the family stream of the Migration Program for refugee and humanitarian entrants
These visas should offer the following concessions: concession rates or waivers for visa application charges; exemption from certain documentation requirements (such as police clearances) and the health requirement; prioritised processing if family members are at immediate risk; access to relevant settlement services; and exemption from Centrelink’s Newly Arrived Resident’s Waiting Period.
Recommendation 2: Introducing needs-based concessions under the family stream of the Migration Program
These concessions would be available for people who are sponsoring relatives in humanitarian need and are able to meet some but not all of the eligibility and documentation requirements for family visas. They would help to make family visas more accessible to people sponsoring relatives in humanitarian need, while also ensuring that the full concessions available under the humanitarian allocation are reserved for the people who face the most significant barriers to family reunion.
Recommendation 3: Consulting 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.
Recommendation 4: Other recommendations
In relation to supporting family reunion, the Australian Government should:
- significantly reduce existing processing times for family reunion applications
- improve its procedures for communicating with visa proposers and applicants about progress with the processing of applications
- restore funding for professional migration advice services under the Settlement Grants program
- expand the nointerest loan scheme administered by the International Organization for Migration and extend eligibility for the scheme to refugee and humanitarian entrants sponsoring relatives under the family stream of the Migration Program
- 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, and
- remove current restrictions on family reunion for refugees who arrived by boat.
Recommendation 5: Reform the Community Proposal Pilot/Community Support Program
In relation to the Community Proposal Pilot/Community Support Program, the Australian Government should:
- substantially reduce the visa application charge associated with the Community Support Program, and replace this with an Assurance of Support designed to cover the costs of providing settlement support within the first 12 months of arrival in Australia
- increase the size of the Community Support Program significantly, including by expanding the geographic reach of the Program to ensure that it is available nationally in both metropolitan and regional areas
- ensure that humanitarian need remains the primary criterion for processing priorities under both the Community Support Program and the Special Humanitarian Program
- ensure that the Community Support Program includes a “safety net” mechanism to protect those sponsored in cases of emergency or relationship breakdown, and
- break the numerical link between the Community Support Program and the offshore Refugee and Humanitarian Program, providing a positive incentive for communities with financial means to work together to create resettlement opportunities which otherwise wouldn’t exist.