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Private resettlement models offer a way for Australia to lift its refugee intake

Can and should Australia be doing more to resettle refugees? AAP/Orhan Tsolak

Private resettlement models offer a way for Australia to lift its refugee intake

No-one disputes the urgent need for co-operative solutions to the global crisis of displaced people, estimated at 65 million people. But the chances of co-operation in the resettlement of recognised refugees seem slim.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has estimated that more than 1.1 million people are in need of resettlement. But offers from countries for resettlement have reached only 111,000 people. That leaves 1 million in limbo.

This week’s UN summits on migrants and refugees offer an opportunity to think creatively about solutions to the resettlement shortfall.

Australia prides itself on its participation in the UNHCR’s Resettlement Program, which is administered through Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. Our resettlement quota under that program stands at 13,750 places annually, with 11,000 of those reserved for people applying from outside Australia.

But can and should Australia be doing more to resettle refugees? Australian has resettled only one-sixth of its promised one-off intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees. So do we need to stick with our current model of state-controlled resettlement schemes? Or are there other models we can learn from?

What is Australia doing?

Refugees comprise just 7% of Australia’s annual migration intake. By contrast, they made up 48% in the years following the second world war.

Since July 2013, Australia’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection has been trialling an alternative model of resettlement, the Community Proposal Pilot.

Under this pilot, community organisations are able to sponsor potential applicants. The pilot is capped at 500 visa places within the Refugee and Humanitarian Program.

The department has appointed five organisations to work with families and supporting community groups to facilitate this resettlement pathway. The response to the pilot has exceeded available places and initial assessments of the program are enthusiastic.

However, the pilot is not without flaws. In particular, the available places are not additional to but are included within the Refugee and Humanitarian Program quota.

The initial evidence shows there is a higher and faster visa grant rate under the pilot than for other resettlement applications. This means certain “private” individuals and organisations can pay for priority “public” service.

Under this model, the families and community organisations bear not only the substantial costs of the visa applications (more than A$30,000 plus additional costs for family members), but also provide practical resettlement assistance to new arrivals. The resettled arrivals have immediate access to the public purse through Centrelink. The pilot model is thus very much nested in the public domain.

Should we follow Canada’s lead?

Canada does a similar scheme differently. There, private sponsorship is additional to and supplements the public resettlement program – that is, private sponsorship occurs over and above the government’s commitment to public sponsorship, not instead of it.

Australia and Canada share many similar characteristics as countries of immigration. In particular, their experiences with Indo-Chinese refugees from 1975 shaped their responses to refugees today.

Private sponsorship was legislated into Canadian law in 1978. In its present form, a group of private individuals (usually not newcomers themselves) come together to nominate one or more refugees for resettlement. The government vets the nominated refugees for health, security and alignment with the refugee definition.

The sponsors must raise the equivalent of one year’s social assistance (equivalent to Centrelink) and undertake to financially support the refugee/s. They do not pay visa or processing costs.

Privately sponsored refugees have access to health care, education, English as second language programs and the like, and the sponsorship group undertakes all other settlement tasks. The formal sponsorship undertaking usually lasts a year.

Australia’s pilot program differs from the Canadian model in the following respects:

  • In Australia the sponsors are almost entirely extended family members of the resettled refugees, not groups or other individuals from the community. In Canada the nominated refugees are often related to previously arrived refugees, but need not be.

  • In Australia the money raised by sponsors is paid to the department for the costs of visas and other services, and to the organisation for administrative and resettlement support. Refugees resettled in Australia have immediate access to Centrelink. In Canada, neither sponsors nor refugees pay for visas or settlement services. Rather, the money raised by sponsors goes to the resettled refugees as income support for the first year, after which they are eligible for public income support (if needed).

  • Finally, the 500 spaces reserved in the Australian program form part of the overall quota for its Refugee and Humanitarian Program. This means there are 500 fewer visas available for publicly resettled refugees. In Canada, the principle of additionality has been invoked to defend private resettlement as a supplement rather than substitute for the government program.

Advantages to be considered

Private sponsorship of refugees offers several potential advantages.

  • It enables the resettlement of more refugees, if the principle of additionality is adopted and applied in good faith.

  • It can reduce the cost to government of resettlement.

  • It generates positive integration outcomes for refugees through the transfer of social capital from established members of the community to new members.

  • It can provide a platform for active citizenship and enhance social cohesion by directly engaging ordinary citizens in the nation-building activity of welcoming newcomers.

In Canada, it is recognised that private sponsorship not only confers benefits on refugees, but also benefits the sponsors and the nation in tangible and intangible ways.

In Australia, an impending government review of the pilot provides the opportunity to revise the program to better harness community support for private refugee sponsorship and help with the global crisis.