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Refugee Response Index Australia Review: Towards durable solutions (Pillar 5)

The following presents the key findings from the application of the Refugee Response Index (RRI) to the Australia context, focusing on Pillar 5 of the RRI: Towards durable solutions.

Refugee Response Index (RRI) Australia Review

Overview

Contributions to durable solutions for refugees in the Australian context mostly comes in the form of local integration (component 5.1) and resettlement (component 5.3). While we have included scores for indicators under component 5.2 (repatriation), it should be noted that most people found to be refugees in Australia are granted permanent visas, making questions of safe, voluntary and dignified repatriation of limited relevance. However, returns are facilitated for those in Australia on a bridging or non-substantive visa (who may have a protection claim pending), refugees on temporary visas, without a visa or with an expired visa. As such, we have scored indicators under this component based on the practices that are applied to those who may have a protection claim still pending, refugees granted temporary visas, and those who have previously been found to be refugees but have subsequently had their visa cancelled.

It should be noted that 2021 was an anomalous year in many ways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This greatly impacted indicators on resettlement as a durable solution, with Australia’s long-standing resettlement program significantly reduced by the introduction of strict border entry restrictions that extended to refugees who had been granted permanent visas through the offshore resettlement program. During this period, the resettlement program was the smallest in 45 years.[1] 

Pillar Five – Australia (Unweighted Scoring)[2] 

Pillar image

Component 5.1: Local integration as a durable solution

Whether or not a refugee can obtain permanent residence or citizenship in Australia (i.e., local integration) is dependent on their mode of arrival. At the end of 2021, there were 18,592 refugees living in Australia who had arrived by boat prior to 2014 and have only been eligible for temporary visas.[3] For this cohort, there has been no pathway to either permanent residence or citizenship.[4] People seeking asylum who arrive on a different visa subclass (i.e., by plane) and are subsequently found to be refugees are granted permanent protection visas with a clear pathway to citizenship. However, onshore protection visas are limited by a ‘planning level’ that acts effectively as a cap (roughly 1,600 places per year), creating a backlog in the finalisation of asylum applications and long delays for refugees in obtaining a permanent status (up to 8 years).[5]

According to official records, only 29% of people recognised as refugees in Australia in the past five years, and 61% of those recognised in the past ten years, have obtained permanent residence or nationality through the grant of a permanent protection visa. This is due to the large cohort of refugees hosted who were granted temporary visas with no prospect of permanent residence or citizenship.[6] In 2021, those on temporary visas were required to reapply for a protection visa every three (for Temporary Protection Visa (TPV) holders) or five (for Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) holders) years (Indicator 5.1.5).[7] Judicial review of refusal of a subsequent visa is available (Indicator 5.1.6).[8]

In terms of processes to facilitate local integration, information about applying for Australian citizenship (Indicator 5.1.4) is widely available for those who are eligible, and some support may be available to make an application (e.g., through migrant support organisations or migration agents).[9] However, a range of issues have been documented in terms of delays in processing and accessibility of citizenship to people from refugee backgrounds.[10]

Component 5.2: Repatriation is undertaken in safety and dignity

As noted in the overview, most refugees are unlikely to be facilitated to return to their country of origin due to the policy of granting permanent protection. However, in response to the question of whether Australia ‘supports, incentivizes, or undertakes premature or involuntary returns or repatriation’ (Indicator 5.2.1), the score of 1 (‘yes’) was given. This is due to there being instances where the Australian government has used coercive tactics and incentivisation to facilitate repatriation or involuntary returns of people whose protection claims have not been fairly assessed. In December 2017, the Australian government facilitated the forced return of a Sri Lankan asylum seeker on the basis that this person had not met the deadline to apply for asylum. This asylum seeker was among many who for valid reasons were unable to do so, including due to lack of legal representation. That same year, Australia announced changes in legal status and withdrew support for refugees and asylum seekers in what UNHCR called a “blatant” attempt at coercing vulnerable groups of refugees to return to their origin countries.[11]

Other indicators in this component were given a 3 due to inconsistency and lack of transparency of practices. Generally, return arrangements from Australia are not based on international protection status but on visa status, meaning they do not sit easily in an analysis of repatriation as a durable solution. People who are unlawful are supported with return, both voluntarily and involuntarily, and some may have previously been found to be refugees or have sought asylum. The lack of transparency in how people are returned is a key problem identified in the Australian context.

In 2021, voluntary returns from Australia were facilitated through a government-contracted provider, Homeward, a subsidiary of Serco.[12] Homeward offers Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) migration services to eligible refugees and migrants who may wish to repatriate to their home country. The level of support provided through this program differs for each individual, and ranges from travel assistance to housing to cash allowances for incidental items.[13] However, the dignified nature of repatriation processes can be questioned. For refugees held in potentially indefinite immigration detention, agreeing to AVR may be seen as the only option to escape their situation. In 2020-21 there were 73 recognised refugees in immigration detention centres due to visa cancellation.[14]

Component 5.3: Countries undertake resettlement

In the period analysed (2021), Australia’s weighted shared of the global resettlement target set out in the UNHCR Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways should have been 1,253 resettlement places (Indicator 5.3.1). According to UNHCR data, the Australian contribution to global resettlement that year exceeded this, with 3,434 arrivals.[15] However, only 350 of the refugees resettled that year were referred by UNHCR[16], raising questions about Australia’s contribution to a coordinated international resettlement response  While Australia scored highly on three of the four indicators in this component, Indicator 5.3.2 was scored only at a 2, due to the Australian Government only honouring 39% of its resettlement pledges for 2021.[17]  This was, in large part, due to disruptions to resettlement processes relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and Australia’s hard-line stance on border closures where very few exceptions were made for refugee or humanitarian visa holders to enter Australia, despite compelling reasons.[18]

It should be acknowledged that Australia’s resettlement commitments have generally been honoured or even exceeded outside of the pandemic context. However, the fact that the Australian government did not find a way to facilitate resettlement through the pandemic, including by rolling over unfulfilled places to subsequent years, warrants the low score. As noted by the Refugee Council of Australia, the Government’s failure to fill a reduced refugee program stands in stark contrast with its ability to meet the full Migration Program quota of 160,000 places in that same year.[19] This is a clear illustration of government priorities at a time when the global need for refugee resettlement was greater than it had ever been.

Other indicators in this component were scored at the highest level, with the Australian government and civil society actively providing support to other countries looking to build their capacity in resettlement or join the resettlement program, and the government providing a suite of services and supports to refugees who are resettled.[20]

Pillar 5 Cross-cutting issues

Insofar as Australia’s contribution to durable solutions impact different segments within refugee populations, the areas where indicators were scored at 3 (‘Specific measures/ guarantees exist but are not consistently applied’) included all of the cross-cutting groups (i.e., gender, age, disability, sexual minorities, ethnic/religious minorities, trafficking victims) with regard to repatriation policies. The lack of transparency regarding returns, and the application of return policies based on visa status not international protection, meant there is insufficient evidence that consideration of the specific concerns of cross-cutting groups are taken into account.

The indicator on resettlement and consideration of refugees with a disability was also given a ‘3’. As a welcome result of policy changes in 2012 that meant Australia no longer purposely discriminates against resettling refugees with a disability, there has been a significant increase in the number of refugees with a disability arriving in Australia. However, this has not been met with the appropriate funding and policies to support their integration and they continue to be excluded as a result.[23]  Refugees who arrived in Australia by boat are ineligible for disability support services which are primarily structured through the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), a government scheme that funds costs associated with disability, due to their temporary visa status.[24] In general, Australia’s resettlement program and policies take into some consideration specific concerns of ethnic and religious minorities. Prioritisation within the resettlement intake from Syria and Iraq has been made for ethnic and religious minorities, although this has been considered discriminatory in practice and not consistently applied.[25]

With regards to how the State incentivises a multi-stakeholder approach (Indicators 5.1 M, 5.2 M 5.3 M), the Australian Government does this well for both local integration and resettlement. In terms of facilitating returns, the Australian Government’s Assisted Voluntary Returns (AVR) program is contracted to a single provider. Although this can be understood as a multi-stakeholder approach to some extent, there has been criticism of the AVR having a single contractor.[26]

More information

Download the RRI Australia Report Appendix to see a full description of indicators and scores for Pillar 3.

RRI Australia Report_Appendix
Size : 855.3 kB Format : PDF

References

[1] RCOA (2021). Refugee program smallest in 45 years while migration program quota filled

[2] This bar chart illustrates the unweighted average score for each component within the Pillar Five. A score of 5 indicates the best or highest response, with 1 being an assessment of the lowest or least desirable response. This scoring is indicative only, given that the indicators and components have not been weighted, and should not be used for comparison purposes.

[3] RCOA (2022). Fast tracking and ‘Legacy Caseload’ statistics

[4] Our assessment of indicators in this component are based on the policy settings that were in place in 2021. The Federal Albanese government elected in July 2022 were elected on a platform that included ending temporary protection. In February 2023, an announcement was made that refugees on TPV or SHEV visas would be transition to a permanent Resolution of Status visa. See: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/end-to-cruel-temporary-protection-policy/.

[5] RCOA (2022). Submission to the ‘Migration System for Australia’s Future’ Discussion Paper

[6] DHA (2022). IMA Legacy Caseload statistics; DHA (2021). Annual Report 2020-21; DHA (2018). Annual Report 2017–18

[7] Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law (2020). Bridging visas and eligibility

[8] DHA. Applying for a subsequent TPV or SHEV – Frequently Asked Questions

[9] DHA. Become an Australian citizen

[10] RCOA (2019). Denying refugees citizenship: the Australian way; Hirsch, A (2015). Delays in Citizenship Applications for Permanent Refugee Visa Holders

[11] UNHCR (2017). Australia should not coerce vulnerable people to return to harm; UNHCR (2017). UNHCR Statement – 22 December 2017

[12] https://www.assistedreturns.com.au/

[13] Swan, G (2017). Strengthening Australia’s assisted voluntary return migration program

[14] RCOA (2022). Statistics on people in detention in Australia

[15] UNHCR (2022). Global Trends in 2021, statistical annex Table 15

[16] UNHCR Resettlement Data

[17] The Department of Home Affairs allocated 11,750 places to the offshore component in the 2020-21 Humanitarian Program, but only delivered  4,558 visas in that year. DHA (2021). Annual Report 2020-21

[18] Refugee Council of Australia (2021). Lifting of travel restrictions welcome news for refugee visa holders

[19] RCOA (2021). Refugee program smallest in 45 years while migration program quota filled

[20] Department of Home Affairs. National Settlement Framework

[21] RCOA (2022). Refugee and Humanitarian visa grants by subclass from 2008-09

[22] 12,000 additional places were granted to Iraqis and Syrians as an additional intake beyond the 13,750 Humanitarian Program. These places were granted over the 2015-16 and 2016-17.

[23] FECCA, NEDA, RCOA, SCOA (2019). Barriers and exclusions: The support needs of newly arrived refugees with a disability

[24] Refugee Support Network Disability Working Group (2020). Refugees with a Disability and their Carers

[25] SBS (2017). ‘Persecuted minorities’ pledge delivers Christian refugee boom; RCOA (2021). Rebuilding a Responsive and Strategic Refugee Program: Response to the Australian Government Discussion Paper on the 2021-22 Humanitarian Program, pp. 13-14

[26] Swan, G (2017). Strengthening Australia’s assisted voluntary return migration program

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