What we’ve effectively been told is that the UNHCR, a bunch of unelected bureaucrats, are going to make the determination about who is going to be sent to Australia or not. And a lot of the most persecuted minorities in the Middle East, the Jews, Christians and the Yazidis, don’t even go to the UNHCR camps, they don’t register there because they are afraid, they are scared for their lives by the Muslim communities that are there. – Senator Cory Bernardi, speaking with the ABC, November 23, 2015.
Australia has decided to settle 12,000 refugees in Australia on permanent humanitarian visas – in addition to the current humanitarian program intake of 13,750.
At the time of the announcement, the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott said:
Our focus will be on families and women and children, especially of persecuted minorities, who have sought refuge in camps neighbouring Syria and Iraq.
But it’s important to note that people who are not registered with the UNHCR can still come through the Special Humanitarian Programme.
Bernardi is right to say that many persecuted minorities don’t go to camps. But that may be for a variety of reasons, not just safety fears as described by church groups. In fact, increasing numbers of refugees live in urban areas, not camps.
The final determination about which 12,000 refugees come to Australia rests with the Australian government.
Refugees from Syria or Iraq who are in Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan can register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This does not give them a legal right to stay or work in those countries, but does give them limited access to health care, education support, food and assistance via the UNHCR.
Before the opening of Zaatari Camp in July 2012, all of the UNHCR-registered Syrian refugees in Jordan were living in urban settings. Currently, the UNHCR estimates that more than 80% of the Syrian refugees in Jordan do not live in camps.
To support his assertion that fear of Muslims dissuaded some minorities from staying in UNHCR camps, a spokesperson for Senator Bernardi referred to a recent news article that reported:
In a statement to The Weekend Australian, the welfare group said Christians were afraid to go to the official refugee camps because they were predominantly filled with Muslims and had also been infiltrated by the terror fighters.
There is anecdotal evidence supporting this assertion. But living in an official refugee camp is not a requirement to obtain UNHCR registration. Some refugees do not register with the UNHCR because they fear being returned to Syria, don’t understand the process, or because of particular vulnerabilities (such as disability).
There are two ways people can under the proposed resettlement program: via a refugee visa or via the Special Humanitarian Program.
The refugee visa
The Australian government works with the UNHCR to identify refugees who are the most vulnerable and in need of resettlement.
The UNHCR’s Resettlement Handbook details some of the factors they may consider, including age, gender, family members, disability and whether the person is from a minority group.
This UNHCR guide notes that:
Identification of refugees in need of resettlement should be based on a refugee’s objective need … identification [should not] be based on the desire of any specific actors, such as the host State, resettlement States, other partners, or UNHCR staff themselves.
A UNHCR representative in Jordan recently told the ABC:
When people are talking about focusing only on minorities, that’s not necessarily a true reflection of the people who are probably most at risk. So if people start pushing the minority card or the religious card, we are going to be pushing that back and saying this is not the most important element for us. Particularly when, as I was mentioning, 99% of the people fleeing to Jordan are basically Sunni Muslims.
A spokesperson for Senator Bernardi noted that in the same interview, the UN representative said:
We do not take too much notice of what politicians anywhere in the world have to say. Some are being very forthright in their positions. What we will do is remain objective and focus on the criteria which we have, which is vulnerability.
(You can read the full response from Senator Bernardi’s spokesperson here.)
While the UNHCR refers cases, it remains the Australian government’s sovereign right to accept or reject that referral. Australian immigration officials conduct their own assessments including health, character and security checks before granting the visa or rejecting a case.
As reported in this recent news article, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has previously said Australia will make the decision on who is accepted.
Peter Vardos, head of the Syria Refugee Resettlement Taskforce, recently told the ABC:
It is a non-discriminatory program across the board and I am confident that by the end of this process, when you look at the makeup of the 12,000 people, they will come from a range of ethnicities and religions.
The Special Humanitarian Program
The second way a person could be resettled is to be granted a visa under the Special Humanitarian Program.
This allows Iraqi and Syrian refugees who are living in Australia, and who are either citizens or permanent residents of Australia, to propose close relatives (spouse or dependent children) for resettlement. It is not a requirement that they be registered with the UNHCR.
Once again, Australian immigration officials have to be satisfied that the asylum seeker and any family members satisfy health, character and security requirements.
Under this visa category, it is also possible for an approved organisation to propose a person and their family to come to Australia.
Cory Bernardi is right, to the extent that the UNHCR determines the shortlist of who can be sent to Australia or not. But the final determination on which of those shortlisted refugees is accepted is up to Australia. Australia cannot be forced to accept refugees it doesn’t want.
Additionally, family members in Australia can nominate relatives for a visa under the Special Humanitarian Program, which does not require registration with the UNHCR.
It is true that there is anecdotal evidence that vulnerable groups may be reluctant to register with the UNHCR in camps due to fear of persecution.
However, the majority of refugees registered with UNHCR in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon do not live in UNHCR camps – and living in a camp is not a requirement to register with the UNHCR.
This is a fair analysis. I would add that the vast majority of refugees housed in camps do not get resettled. About half the world’s refugees live in camps for periods exceeding five years; of those, the majority are there for at least 10 years. There is no meaningful “queue” for resettlement nor any legal requirement that refugees seek protection in a camp.