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Australia’s response to the Syrian refugee crisis

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The escalating Syrian refugee crisis continues to make news headlines around the world and in recent weeks European countries have been gathering to discuss what they can do to assist. Several European countries have committed to increasing resettlement places for Syrian refugees, while Germany has stated that it will process asylum applications from Syrians in Germany rather than returning them for processing to the country in which they first entered the EU, as it is permitted to do under the Dublin II Regulation. Germany expects to receive up to 800,000 asylum applications from Syrians in 2015.

The number of Syrian refugees being offered resettlement in Australia has been slowly increasing over the last several years, and in 2014 the Australian Government announced that it would provide 4,500 resettlement places for refugees from Syria, to be spread over three years. As the crisis in Europe has escalated in recent weeks, pressure has been mounting on the Australian Government to do more, with refugee advocates, the Australian Greens, the Opposition, and some Government members calling for more resettlement places for Syrians. The Prime Minister announced on 6 September 2015 that Australia would consider how it could further assist Syrian refugees, including through resettlement within the existing humanitarian quota of 13,750 places per year (the total quota will rise to 18,750 in 2018-19). In other words, no additional resettlement places would be made immediately available in Australia. More resettlement places will be made available to refugees from Syria through a redistribution of places from within the existing allocation.

The following table shows the countries of origin for offshore humanitarian entrants to Australia over the last three years. With an increase in the places being made available to Syrians, fewer places would be available for refugees from these other countries.

 

Humanitarian Program (offshore) visa grants by country of birth

Country of birth

2011–12

2012–13

2013–14

Afghanistan

712

2431

2754

Iraq

1476

4063

2364

Myanmar

1856

2351

1819

Syria

9

98

1007

Bhutan

695

1016

507

Iran

216

468

431

Democratic Republic of Congo

300

489

326

Eritrea

221

184

277

Somalia

160

379

237

Ethiopia

330

182

221

Source: Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP), Migration Trends 2013–14, p. 62.

 

What other options exist?

The Government is able to increase the overall size of the humanitarian program if it wishes to do so, thereby making more permanent resettlement places available to Syrian refugees without reducing the places available to other refugee caseloads. There are also options available for providing emergency temporary assistance to Syrian refugees outside the permanent humanitarian intake.

In 1999 the Howard Government established two temporary ‘safe haven’ visa subclasses (p. 91) separate from the Humanitarian Program to be granted under the understanding that the visa holder would return to their country of origin once it became safe to do so:

  • Kosovar Safe Haven Visa (subclass 448)—created specifically for the evacuation and temporary stay of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo and

  • Humanitarian Stay (subclass 449)—created to grant entry and temporary stay for other people in humanitarian crisis situations, such as the East Timorese.

People were not able to apply for these visas—instead they were granted at the invitation of the Minister for periods of time determined by individual circumstances. The Department of Immigration subsequently granted a total of 5900 visas to Kosovars (4000) and East Timorese (1900) in 1999–00.

Most of the Kosovars (assisted at a cost of about $100 million) returned home. In April 2000, the Minister announced that 259 of the remaining Kosovars were leaving, 130 would have their visas extended and 110 were able to apply for protection visas. In March 2005, the Minister announced that the 90 Kosovars remaining in the country would be given bridging visas while each case was considered for ministerial intervention. Presumably most of these individuals were eventually granted permanent protection visas.

The Department has granted small numbers of temporary safe haven visas on other occasions. For example, in 2008–09 (p.86), temporary Humanitarian Stay (subclass 449) visas were granted to five people who had been living in Indonesia in IOM facilities—these five people were subsequently granted three year Temporary Humanitarian Concern (subclass 786) visas which were introduced by the Howard Government in 2000.

There have been calls for the Government to use the safe haven visa to bring Syrian refugees to Australia, but whether these are an appropriate tool for responding to the Syrian refugee crisis is a matter of some debate. They are temporary visas designed to provide emergency assistance in crisis situations. The vast majority of the Kosovars assisted in 1999 were able to return home within a year. It seems unlikely in the current circumstances that the same would be possible for any Syrians brought to Australia on these visas. While a temporary safe haven response would assist in addressing the immediate problems of mass displacement from Syria, a more long-term solution will eventually be needed if people are unable to return home.

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