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Turnbull announces a new refugee plan, but will it solve the crisis?

Malcolm Turnbull has announced a permanent rise in Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake to nearly 19,000. EPA/Jason Szenes

Turnbull announces a new refugee plan, but will it solve the crisis?

Malcolm Turnbull has announced a permanent rise in Australia’s humanitarian refugee intake to nearly 19,000. EPA/Jason Szenes

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced that Australia will increase its refugee intake from 13,750 to 18,750 in 2018-19. Australia will also resettle refugees from Central America.

Turnbull made the announcement at the invitation-only refugee summit held by US President Barack Obama. The figure of 18,750 was a pledge of the Abbott government, but has not yet been acted on; the humanitarian intake has remained at about 13,750 in the last two financial years.

The pledge to resettle refugees from Central America is a completely new policy initiative, and begs the question of why the government is extending the source countries of its resettlement program.

Does Australia have the capacity to take 18,750 refugees? And has it got the capacity to take refugees from new source countries in Central America?

How the numbers stack up

In 2015, 2.45 million refugees had their status recognised or were resettled around the world. Australia resettled 11,776 people, or 0.48% of the total.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, Australia was ranked 25th overall, 32nd per capita, and 47th relative to total national GDP in terms of how it contributes to the refugee crisis.

These figures do not take account of the fact that Australia has, according to Turnbull, the third-largest planned migration program in the world. This means Australia’s contribution to refugee resettlement is extremely low as a proportion of its overall annual migration.

Australia’s resettlement program can be broken into two groups of refugees: those who arrive onshore and seek asylum in Australia (2,377 in 2015), and those who are resettled from refugee camps around the world under an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR (9,399 in 2015).

The government often points to Australia’s contribution to this second group as an indicator of its contribution to the global refugee crisis. Of the 2.45 million refugees resettled around the world in 2015, 107,000 (0.66%) were resettled through the UNHCR resettlement program. Only a small number of countries who do not receive large numbers of asylum seekers at their borders have the capacity to assist in this way.

In 2015, the major contributors to the UNHCR resettlement program were the US, which resettled more than 66,000 people, Canada with 20,000, and Australia with 9,399. On a per-capita basis, Australia has the fifth-most-generous resettlement program.

In world terms, a refugee intake of 18,750 is modest by any measure. When Labor came to office in 2007, it immediately increased the intake to 20,000. The report of the expert panel on asylum seekers in 2012 – the blueprint for Australia’s current refugee policy – recommended an increase in numbers to 26,000. The Greens’ policy is for a refugee intake of 50,000.

How many refugees should we be taking?

Given that in recent times our planned migration program has run at about 190,000, it is hard to argue that Australia does not have the capacity to take in many more refugees.

The barriers are the economic, social and cultural costs associated with replacing a migrant under the skilled or family migration programs with a refugee.

Not surprisingly, refugees find it harder than other migrants to hold down work and integrate into the Australian community in the short term. However, they make a considerable contribution in the long term, are very loyal to Australia, and disproportionately successful in entrepreneurial endeavours.

The government has a clear preference for contributing through the UNHCR resettlement program, rather than processing asylum seekers arriving at the border. In New York, Turnbull put it like this:

Our strategy addresses all parts of the problem – employing strong border protection policies and a tough stance on people smugglers, while tackling the causes of displacement, with a generous and compassionate resettlement program supporting refugees in our communities.

There is little question that the government will devote many of the new places to the resettlement program. However, it will also need to use the extra numbers to work through the backlog of 28,000 asylum seekers living in the community who arrived prior to the re-introduction of offshore processing.

One possible positive outcome is that processing of these asylum seekers, which has been occurring at a glacial pace since temporary protection visas and safe haven enterprise visas were introduced at the beginning of 2015, might occur more quickly.

Refugees from Central America

Refugees in Central America are predominantly political refugees from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras fleeing violence in their home countries. Many end up in refugee camps on the Costa Rican border.

Latin America is not a traditional source country for refugees to Australia. Furthermore, Latin Americans make up a very small portion of the Australian population. Among people living in Australia who were born overseas, there are no Central or South American countries in the top 30 source countries.

So why is Australia undertaking to resettle refugees from Central America? There is some suggestion that Turnbull will strike a deal with the US government for the resettlement of Central American refugees in Australia in exchange for the resettlement of refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.

Such a deal would be a dramatic final chapter in the offshore detention policy for which Labor and Coalition governments have been roundly criticised. If Turnbull can pull this off, it will demonstrate the benefits of regional co-operation.

However, there would be an element of politics trumping common sense in any such deal. There are established migrant and refugee communities from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Sri Lanka in Australia (the source countries of many refugees on Nauru and Manus Island). These include many immediate family members of those on Nauru and Manus Island.

On the other hand, there are very small Honduran, Guatemalan and El Salvadorian communities in Australia to support refugees from these countries. It is important to remember that the refugees from all these countries are fleeing situations of great stress. Support networks in countries of settlement are of vital importance for their mental health and wellbeing.

Before striking any deal, the Australian government needs to be satisfied that it has the capacity to offer the necessary support to refugees from Central America.