Refugee Council of Australia
Large cardboard Welcome refugees sign in protest

State of the Nation 2017: Refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia

What should be done?

What should be done? The challenges ahead

Australia’s policies towards resettling refugees from overseas lead the world. Yet its policies towards people seeking asylum, especially those who come by boat, are among the world’s worst. Australia, alone in the world, sends people seeking asylum by boat to tiny islands with threats they will never be able to seek safety in Australia. Australia is one of the few countries in the world that locks people up indefinitely. Australia forces people into destitution. Australia leaves people in limbo. Australia forces people seeking asylum to go through a fundamentally unfair process to claim protection, without any real legal help. Even if people get protection, they only get it for a few years before they have to start over again, meaning they can never really start to plan their lives, their future and can never really become Australian.

Australia’s current policies are causing enormous harm, both physical and mental, to tens of thousands of people. Australia’s current policies are also causing harm to the Australian public: they undermine our liberal principles; they encourage racism and hostility; they undermine social cohesion and trust; they create an underclass of vulnerable people, and possibly a generation of people who are locked out of Australian society. This is a generation that could bring so much to Australia but we are at real risk of losing them. In so doing, we risk losing our own understanding of what it is to be an Australian, to be part of a country that celebrates multiculturalism and is strengthened by its diversity.

So, what should be done? RCOA has made many recommendations already on these issues. The following are what we see as the key priorities for 2017.

End the punishment of people seeking asylum

End offshore processing

Most urgently, we need to end offshore processing and the practice of ‘turning back of boats’. The pointless and tragic punishment of over 2,000 people — most of whom have been recognised as refugees — has gone on for far too long and has done far too much damage. We need to end a policy that, if it ever had a purpose, has surely lost it by now.

Stop people seeking asylum from starving

In 2017, thousands of people are likely to fall back into destitution because of the unfair process of refugee status determination and the Government’s policy of not automatically allowing people the right to live and work legally in the community. If people are denied a bridging visa, they will live with the fear of being re-detained, be unable to access health care, have no income support and be unable to work.

Giving people seeking asylum the right to work is a very significant and welcome change. There are some simple things that can be done to make this work far more effectively. People need to be granted longer visas and their right to work should be clearly explained, so that employers feel more confident in investing in them. People seeking asylum can be given transport concessions by state governments, as demonstrated by NSW and Victoria. The system of income support could provide greater benefit by ensuring that the system is better designed so that people get the support they really need.

End indefinite detention

Australia must stop detaining people in such large numbers and for such long periods of time. We need to end a situation in which people can be detained for years at a time without any independent review of the reasons for that detention. We need to set – in law a clear and short time limit for immigration detention. We need to make sure that detention is a last, rather than a first, resort. If people are to be detained, they must be detained in conditions of dignity and be able to get appropriate mental health services and access to legal support.

End temporary protection

We need to give people permanent rather than temporary protection. People seeking safety need security. They need to be given time to heal, time to settle and time to look forward to the future.

Even if temporary protection is kept, it can be made better. For a start, we should allow all people seeking safety the same access to settlement services, the National Disability Insurance Scheme and help to access further education. People should be able to go overseas and visit their loved ones with no repercussions or threats. People should be able to bring their loved ones here. As we did the first time with temporary protection, people should be able to get permanent protection once they have proved their need for safety.

End ‘slow tracking’

We should end the system of ‘fast track’ processing that has so far been neither fast and could never be fair. Critically, we must make sure that people who seek asylum can get the legal help they need to navigate a very complex system that can mean the difference between life and death.

Stop damaging their mental health

Finally, we urgently need to look at how we can better support these very vulnerable people as their communities suffer from what has happened to them in the past, and what we are doing to them here. We need to put in place a comprehensive mental health strategy to deal with the complex needs and the consequences of the Australian government’s persecution.

Help people settle

Bring families together

One of the cruellest and most heartbreaking elements of Australia’s current policies is the pain felt by people from refugee backgrounds, and people seeking asylum, when they are separated from their families. Sometimes, this pain cannot be fixed. People lose families in the mess of war, or in the face of persecution. Children are sent ahead to safety and parents left behind may not survive.

A very significant amount of suffering is caused by our government’s policies and administration. Some things are simple to fix. The government doesn’t tell people how long they must wait or tell them how their application is progressing. Better communication would be a simple start. Putting in a small amount of money would mean that people can ask for advice on the complex process of applying for family reunion. This would mean that people have a better understanding of the process, applications would be better prepared and the process would be far more efficient. Enabling people to apply for no-interest loans to pay for the cost of the applications would also help people deal with the very high costs involved, and mean that people do not arrive heavily in debt.

Other simple things could be done quickly, if the Government wished. The Minister for Immigration could get rid of his direction that means that people who arrive by boat effectively will never get to be reunited with their families because they are given the lowest priority. The Government could update the definition of ‘family’ so that more family members could come. Putting more resources into processing family applications could speed things up.

Building on the existing Community Proposal Pilot would benefit many by making the program much bigger, reducing the fees significantly and by making sure that need remains the top priority. This could be achieved by moving the program out of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program, which is capped annually, so that it would create greater incentives for communities to work together to create new opportunities for resettlement.

Treating applications for family reunion for people from refugee backgrounds as migration and not as part of the Refugee and Humanitarian Program would be a significant improvement. This would free up places under the existing programs for other relatives who are in urgent need of protection.

Help people with a disability

RCOA welcomes the inclusion of people with a disability under the Refugee and Humanitarian program. This is a commendable first step and we must now support the next steps that need to be taken to make sure that people receive the support they nee

An easy, but important, step is that the people who are helping them settle should get detailed information earlier of the kinds of needs they will have and be funded properly to make sure the right assistance is available including access to appropriate equipment, services and housing.

Learning and working better

RCOA welcomes most of the Australian Government’s recently announced changes to the way the main English language tuition program, AMEP, will work. While not all the details are clear yet, some of these changes will make it easier for some people to learn in a way that better suits their needs. More flexible learning opportunities, more opportunities for people to learn from people with a shared language and culture and more funding for community organisations to support learning are all things that will help people learn English.

We must support equal access to further education to enable them to reach their potential and contribute meaningfully to their new community. Giving people seeking asylum, and people on temporary protection visas, access to support to go to TAFE or university would give people hope and opportunities, and give Australia a better workforce.

The next step is to make sure people can get jobs: we need to make sure that the organisations that provide job seeker assistance can communicate effectively; that people receive the help they need; and that organisations who understand these needs are supported.

The Australian government must stop delaying people from obtaining their citizenship. For many people, it is both a symbolic step toward becoming part of Australia and a path to bring their loved ones here. People who have gone through the difficult process of settling and are ready to become part of Australia should be celebrated, not frustrated.

Why we should do better

These practical and principled proposals have been made based on the views and voices of hundreds of people across Australia—people who have survived the flight to safety as well as people who support this group. People know best what needs to be fixed and how to make their lives better.

So why should we as civil society do these things? First, because helping people find safety and settle in Australia will help Australia. If we stopped spending so much money on locking people up and sending them to distant islands and instead recognise that with people who can build lives here, work hard, create jobs and enrich our lives, we would all be better off — financially, culturally, and morally.

Second, and most importantly, because it will help people who need our help. These are people who have come here because they can’t stay where they are. Nobody stays in limbo unless they really believe they can’t go back. These are people seeking safety, security, and dignity. In short, doing the right thing by them is simply the right thing to do.

Join the Movement

We need you to show our government that Australia cares about refugees. Help us by joining the movement so we can protect refugees, not punish them.


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