Refugee Council of Australia
Three people at microphones

Rebuilding our damaged reputation: A strategy for Australian leadership on refugee protection

Rebuilding Australia’s international credibility

Of course, this would be much harder to achieve if Australia is asking its neighbours to do things we are not prepared to do ourselves. We need to clean up our own act domestically if we want to effect change elsewhere – change which I stress would be in Australia’s national interest and in the interests of refugees. Clearly we must begin with the situation of people struggling to survive in Australia’s offshore detention arrangements. As I have noted earlier, even if the US takes 1200 refugees, almost inevitably there will be many left behind. The Government must recognise what John Howard recognised a decade or so ago, that the point about boats has been made clearly and the sky will not fall in if people who have suffered for four years are quietly brought to this country.

The scale and length of immigration detention also needs serious scrutiny. At the end of June, the average length of time spent in detention for the 1,262 people detained was 467 days – that’s more than 15 months. 298 people had been detained for more than two years. If you are charged with a crime, your detention is scrutinised by a court and ultimately you get an end date for your period of imprisonment. With immigration detention, a bureaucrat decides whether or not to detain you, with no reference to a court, and you have no idea when or whether you will be released. This is unacceptable and an appalling precedent for other countries. We need an independent review process for immigration detention, just like we have for detention in prisons.

Our domestic asylum process is a mess, with different systems depending on the mode of arrival and the date you came. It is full of unfairness. We need to go back to having a single asylum process, with full independent review of decisions, legal aid for those who need it and the scrapping of temporary protection. The process needs to be focused on determining fairly whether or not a person has a well-founded fear of persecution and, if they do, giving them the opportunity to get on with their lives in safety and security. As that’s what we’d like other countries to do, we must do it ourselves.

As we are well away from the large-scale movements of refugees, we have the capacity to do more through resettlement, as we have shown through the recent additional allocation of 12,000 places for Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The program can be expanded at low cost through a genuine community-based private sponsorship model similar to the one in operation in Canada. In June, I spent 10 days in four Canadian cities looking at how it works – and it’s impressive. The program brings communities together to welcome refugee newcomers and to support them. We can do that as well or better here.

The Government’s current model of private sponsorship, the new Community Support Program, is without a doubt the world’s worst practice in private sponsorship. It is focused on gauging money out of businesses and refugee families and it provides no real option for broader community involvement. I have worked with people from Settlement Services International in Sydney on a short discussion paper about how the best of the Canadian model can be applied here.

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