Identification of strategies to assist refugee young people in transition to independence

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5 Support for young refugees

This chapter examines the capacity of federal government agencies to address the needs of young refugees, particularly where family supports are inadequate or not available. The Access and Equity Strategy, the National Integrated Settlement Strategy and particularly the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy represent the current policy context for ensuring the needs of young refugees are addressed. The challenges faced by young refugees during resettlement give rise to complex support needs that cross several government portfolios. This chapter provides a brief overview of programs and services within key federal departments that can potentially assist young refugees. The chapter closes with a critical review of current federal policies, programs and services drawing on the ideas put forward by 17 ‘key informants’ (see Appendix 6). First, we discuss the nature and extent of Australia’s commitment to refugees.

The commitment to refugees in Australia

On a per capita basis, Australia has accepted more refugees than any other major immigration destination (Iredale & D’Arcy 1992, p.xii).

Australia’s ratio of refugees to total population is low (Moss 1993, p.177).

Over the last few years, Australia’s commitment to refugees has become an issue of public controversy, tending to polarise the community into those who feel Australia is too generous and those who feel it is not generous enough. But, as the two quotations above suggest, the facts sometimes appear contradictory.

Australia has a long history of accepting and supporting refugees, beginning with the wave of post Second World War immigration. Iredale and D’Arcy (1992) argue that Australia’s record of providing support to refugees is outstanding. Their assessment relies largely on what they see as the relatively high quality of Australia’s resettlement programs. Countries like Germany and Britain do not have well-developed refugee resettlement programs, despite housing substantial numbers of refugees. The lack of formal acknowledgment and planning for the presence of refugees in these countries makes it difficult to compare their response to that of Australia.

Over the 17-year period from 1975 to 1992, Australia formally accepted for resettlement one refugee for every 86 persons in Australia. This is the third-highest rate in the world after Sweden and Canada (although there are only 10 Western countries that regularly accept refugees for permanent settlement (Victory 1995)). Moss’s conflicting appraisal of Australia’s commitment arises from a comparison of Australia’s intake of refugees with that of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, Malawi, Jordan, Armenia, Sudan and Pakistan. In some of these territories and countries, refugees comprise up to one-tenth of the population, a considerably larger proportion than Australia’s rate of one refugee per 86 persons (total population). However, these countries and territories are often adjacent to regions of civil war or famine, and people pour across national boundaries seeking safety and food. Australia is not usually a country of first asylum.

A second, more recent source of confusion surrounding Australia’s degree of commitment to refugees relates to the different international standing of the offshore and onshore components of the Humanitarian Program (see Chapter 2) and the respective treatment of refugees who entered the country with and without valid documentation. The offshore program is seen as a ‘positive and welcome initiative, one that Australia can be proud of’ (Amnesty International Australia 2001). At the same time, Australia has recently been under scrutiny from international human rights organisations for failing to observe the UN Convention with respect to the treatment of refugees who come to Australia as asylum seekers. The UN Convention forbids refugees to be penalised as a result of their unlawful entry to a receiving nation.1 For more than 50 years it has been acknowledged that people fleeing from persecution are often not in a position to obtain relevant documentation before departure. Amnesty International General Secretary Irene Khan visited Australia in March 2002 to draw attention to the human rights violations arising from mandatory detention of asylum seekers and from the terms and conditions conferred by the temporary protection visas allocated to proven refugees who arrived without authorisation. In response to common assertions by government regarding Australia’s commitment to refugees she notes:

Australian politicians speak of the human rights record of this country as ‘second to none’. This is a country, known for its hospitality to refugees, with a good track record of receiving around 12,000 refugees a year. But I am afraid the image of Australia today is less of a carefree, sunburnt sporting nation, and more of the Tampa and its human cargo, of riots and protests at Woomera, of Australian-funded detention centres on the Pacific Islands … [The Australian Government] needs to re-examine its policies on refugees and asylum seekers, both because of its obligation to uphold human rights of these people, and also because these policies may actually undermine, rather than promote, Australia’s professed goals at home and abroad (Irene Khan, Secretary General, Amnesty International, Canberra, 5 March 2002).

Government policy regarding ‘unauthorised’ asylum seekers also has implications for the extent of commitment to people who have suffered ‘gross violation of human rights in their country’ and who apply for resettlement in Australia under the offshore humanitarian program. This is due to the linking of planning levels for the offshore and onshore components of the Humanitarian Program. The number of places made available for the offshore Special Humanitarian Program depends on the number of protection visas that has been granted to refugee applicants onshore. As noted in Chapter 2, the size of Australia’s Special Humanitarian Program dropped by 30% in 1999–2000 following dramatic increases in the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat. The linking of offshore and onshore planning levels does not mean a reduction of Australia’s overall humanitarian intake, indeed this policy is designed to ensure that intake remains at, or rather, within a certain level.2 However, this raises the question of whether at times of increasing global demand for resettlement on humanitarian grounds, the size of Australia’s intake of humanitarian settlers should increase rather than remain fixed at levels set under different conditions.

In the aftermath of the events of September 11, and in the context of dramatic increases in the numbers of unauthorised boat arrivals to Australia (particularly since 1999), migration policy has again become highly politicised. Bipartisan assertions regarding Australia’s rights to protect its own borders have tended to displace political debate on the question of Australia’s responsibilities in the global refugee crisis. There are justifiable concerns regarding the threat of terrorism and an ongoing need for Australia to make careful checks before allowing people into the community. However, there is a danger that policy regarding asylum seekers and unauthorised arrivals will be excessively dominated by the desire to create a deterrence for people smuggling to the detriment of humanitarian considerations and international obligations.

Nevertheless, both major political parties in Australia remain broadly committed to continuing an annual refugee and humanitarian intake. Coalition and ALP policy documents propose to maintain, support, review or upgrade the Humanitarian Program. Despite some political differences which appear to have widened following the election of the Howard Government for a third term in November 2001, it is likely that refugee and humanitarian arrivals will continue at least at current levels and there is broad recognition that government should accept responsibility for supporting refugees.

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