On the tail end of Australia’s Refugee Week; an annual event celebrating the contributions of refugees to Australian society, we delve a little deeper into the complexities tied to our immigration system and the Refugee and Humanitarian Programme.
We must first understand who is considered a refugee. Under the 1951 Refugee Convention (and its 1967 Protocol), a refugee is:
“Any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country”
Australia as signatory to the Refugee Convention (and later the 1967 Protocol) is obligated under international law to offer protection and a safe haven to those who are found to meet the definition of a refugee.
This is where the situation becomes complex. Although Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Programme is an important part of our contribution to the international protection of refugees, due to prolonged world events causing a mass exodus in many countries, the refugee ‘crisis’ continues to cause controversy overseas and here in Australia. The refugee debate in Australia mainly surrounds the arrival of asylum seekers by boat. Australia has strong policies in place designed to stop asylum seekers reaching Australia by sea. The Government believes this to be an extremely dangerous journey, driven by criminal networks controlling the movement of people. However, it is important to understand that it is not illegal to enter Australia for the purpose of seeking asylum, regardless of the mode of transport used to arrive in the country. The term asylum seeker simply refers to a person who is seeking protection as a refugee, but has not had their claims assessed.
Most recently the world has seen the greatest number of asylum seekers since the Second World War. With the events in Syria and Iraq still in the forefront of our minds and the continuing numbers of people seeking asylum in Australia, it comes as no surprise that recent statistics released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) showed that at the end of 2015 over 65.3 million people were displaced from their home and country. If you need to put that into perspective let us help…that’s almost 3 times the population of Australia. This number has sky rocketed in the last 12 months where before it was only 59.5 million (still a very high number).
Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian programme caters for refugees who enter Australia either via the offshore Refugee and Special Humanitarian programme or as onshore asylum seekers. Unfortunately the numbers of applications received for resettlement outweigh the number of available visas.
Offshore resettlement has two types of visas: Refugee visa and Special Humanitarian Programme (SHP) visa. The onshore protection program has three types of protection visas: Permanent Protection Visa, Temporary Protection Visa and Save Haven Enterprise Visa.
The refugee visa subclasses allow people who are subject to persecution in their home country to apply for protection in Australia. Claims made by asylum seekers need to be stringently assessed in order to determine whether they qualify for refugee status.
Special Humanitarian Programme (SHP) visas protect people who are outside of their own country and subject to substantial persecution amounting to gross violation of their human rights. SHP visa applicants must be proposed by an Australian citizen, permanent resident or a community organisation based in Australia. SHP applicants must meet strict background, health and character criteria.
While there are many who think that the Australia isn’t doing enough in order to accommodate the current refugee crisis, the Government announced on 9 September 2015 that it would make an extra 12,000 permanent humanitarian places available in response to the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. The places are in addition to the existing Humanitarian Programme intake of 13,750. In the scheme of things this may still seem too small to handle the influx of people fleeing war torn countries and/or personal persecution. However, (and as cliché as this might sound) small steps need to be taken first before we can start making giant leaps. With the inclusion of the extra 12,000 humanitarian places that have been made available, Australia is doing as much as it can in the face of global crisis.