The proposal to introduce a temporary parent visa
On 21 June 2016, the Australian Government committed to changing existing visa arrangements to enable sponsored parents to visit their family in Australia for a continuous period of up to five years, if re-elected. This proposal was also considered as part of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into the migrant intake in Australia.
The Department of Immigration and Border Protection issued a discussion paper in September 2016. Submissions on the discussion paper closed on 31 October 2016. The government has committed to introducing the visa, but this is subject to legislation passing that is still before the Senate.
Our key concerns
Barriers to family reunion
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 most common theme discussed has been how family separation impedes the ability of people to settle successfully.
Participants in our annual consultations have highlighted many challenges affecting people in Australia who are seeking to sponsor family members to join them in Australia. Some of these challenges are longstanding issues that we have raised over many years. They include:
- prolonged delays in processing applications, especially for Special Humanitarian Program (SHP) visas
- the restrictive definition of family
- the need for formal documents to substantiate family relationships, which may not be available or exist
- the denial of family reunion opportunities to people who are not formally registered as refugees, and
- the limited availability of affordable migration advice.
Other challenges have resulted from more recent policy changes, such as the introduction of new restrictions affecting people who arrived in Australia by boat.
In its April 2016 inquiry report on migrant intake into Australia, the Productivity Commission acknowledged the long wait for a non-contributory parent visa. To reduce the demand for this visa and the subsequent wait, the Commission recommended significantly reducing the number of places allocated to this visa and limiting the eligibility criteria to “cases where there are strong compassionate grounds”. The report also recommends a substantial increase in the visa charges for the contributory parent visas, proposing the fee be doubled in the first instance.
RCOA considers that this largely economic analysis of the benefits and costs of family reunion is deeply flawed. Along with the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA), we disagree with the Commission’s conclusion that the benefits of parent visa holders are largely obtained by the sponsors and visa holders, and not by unrelated members of the Australian community.
Together with FECCA, we also believe that family migration is integral to successful settlement in Australia and social cohesion. RCOA believes that the cost of family separation for the families involved and the larger community should also be considered in analysis and future planning.
In particular, RCOA is concerned a predominantly economic analysis will lead to recommendations that disregard the unique circumstances of more vulnerable migrants, such as refugees.
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 regularly refer to their serious concerns for the safety and welfare of family members left behind.
Service providers have continued to express concern about the impacts of family separation on the mental health of refugees and humanitarian entrants, citing instances of self-harm and suicidal ideation triggered by family separation. Family separation also deprives people of the social and emotional support that is critical to settling successfully in Australia.
Family separation is costly, both to refugees and to the wider Australian community. People who participated in RCOA’s research highlighted the enormous pressure on people in Australia to support relatives in refugee situations overseas, which was seen to both compound the stress of family separation and impose a significant financial burden on people attempting to settle in Australia.
Family separation can have a negative impact on relationships, potentially leading to relationship breakdown. One former refugee living in Melbourne reflected this theme when he reported that some families living overseas had felt that their relatives in Australia had “abandoned” them, failing to understand the barriers in Australia which had led to prolonged delays in reunification.
New temporary visa for parents
RCOA is concerned that the proposal for the new temporary visa for parents, especially in light of the Productivity Commission’s other proposals, signals a further move away from a migration program that recognises the value of family for all Australians, including refugees. We are also concerned about the increasing trend away from offering permanent pathways unless significant fees are charged.
Current practice for granting temporary visas effectively excludes those with family members in Australia who are from a refugee background. Our understanding is that this is because the Department considers them ‘at risk’ of seeking asylum once they arrive. This practice is clearly discriminatory, but continues as an attempt to limit the number of asylum claimants onshore.
We are concerned that this practice will continue to apply for those who are sponsored through this new temporary family visa. This would mean that those from a refugee background in Australia would be effectively denied a chance to bring their family over on this new temporary visa. We are also concerned that the current proposal considers the immigration history of the applicant as one of the determining factors for the length of the visa. The discussion paper is silent about what would be considered as an adverse immigration history. RCOA believes people must not be excluded because they have fled their countries of origin to seek safety.
Recommendation 1: Allocate 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 should be introduced 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. These concessions 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: Conducting a consultation with refugee communities, practitioners involved in providing support with family reunion applications and other relevant stakeholders
This consultation should be focused on developing a process for assessing eligibility for the concessions referred to above.
It is envisaged that shifting split family applications to the Migration Program would create more resettlement opportunities under the SHP for people who do not have viable visa options available under the Migration Program (such as adult children, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents), as well as providing opportunities for community groups to become involved in sponsoring people for resettlement.
Additionally, RCOA proposes the following recommendations to address other issues raised with regard to family separation:
Recommendation 4: Additional measures to support 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 no-interest 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: Changes 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.
Read the full submission