Government also lifting resettlement cap from 750 to 1,900 a year in moves applauded by refugee advocates
The Australian government has slashed the visa costs for community groups wanting to sponsor refugees by 60% from next year, and will establish a new pilot program for refugee support in a move advocates have described as “a watershed moment”.
Any refugees sponsored by members of the Australian public will be subtracted from the government’s humanitarian commitment rather than added to the number, but the Department of Home Affairs said it would consider making community-sponsored places additional in future.
In its mid-year economic update, the government announced that from 1 July next year it would “reduce the visa application charge to 40% of the current rate for primary applicants to the community support program and remove it entirely for secondary applicants”.
A government spokesperson said: “This means that family size will not impact on the total visa application charge.”
It costs, on average, more than $90,000 to sponsor a family of five to resettle in Australia, compared with the equivalent of $36,000 under Canada’s comparable program.
The government spokesperson said the visa application charge – a significant component of the current cost – would fall from $19,449 for a primary applicant to $7,760.
Community sponsors also commit to paying airfares, medical screening and on-arrival support such as initial accommodation.
The government also announced the cap on community-sponsored refugees resettling would be lifted from 750 to 1,900 a year, over the next three financial years.
“The Australian community has demonstrated great enthusiasm for supporting refugees through private, community-led sponsorship programs,” the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, said.
“These new measures are designed to build on and harness this enthusiasm … We know that community-based settlement can be particularly effective at delivering successful settlement outcomes for refugee and humanitarian entrants.”
The government’s limited community support program (CSP) has run for four years but suffered poor uptake, and been criticised – inside and out of government – for being too expensive, restrictive and overly bureaucratic.
The national manager of Amnesty International’s My New Neighbour campaign, Shankar Kasynathan, said the expanded cap and reduced costs would make community sponsorship of refugees more accessible for dozens of community groups.
“Right across the country, particularly in regional Australia, there are hundreds of people in our communities who have been saying for years if the cost goes down, if the process becomes easier, they feel they will absolutely be able to sponsor refugees to come to Australia.
“Some of these are people who haven’t seen their brother, their father, their sister or mother for year after year after year. This will make it easier for them to reunite, and has given people certainty.”
Kasynathan said a reformed community sponsorship program still required further improvement but would be embraced by family, diaspora and community groups seeking to sponsor refugees to resettle.
“We are so much closer to a fairer, more accessible and more just community sponsorship program.
“We absolutely have to have a program that is additional – that is critical and we will continue to pursue that … but this is a significant moment.”
A government spokesperson said: “The government will give further consideration to whether places in the CSP should be made additional to Australia’s base humanitarian program once it is able to gain a better understanding of take-up rates and the program’s effectiveness in improving settlement and integration outcomes.”
Australia’s reduced humanitarian intake of 13,500 was less than half-filled last financial year at 5,947 – the lowest intake in 45 years.
The government also announced it would dedicate $9.2m over four years to establish a community refugee integration and settlement pilot (Crisp), designed to increase the role of community groups in supporting refugees who are resettled in Australia under the government’s humanitarian quota.
The Crisp program will allow community groups to sponsor a refugee previously unknown to them, as recommended by the UN high commissioner for refugees.
The chief executive of Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia, Lisa Button, said the pilot program was a “watershed moment” that would provide significant benefits to both refugees coming to Australia and the communities that sponsored them.
“This program will enable everyday Australians to be leading participants in welcoming and supporting the integration of new refugees.
“It will also give everyday Australians a greater sense of buy-in to our country’s refugee resettlement program, helping to maintain and further build strong public support for that program into the future.”
Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia will work with the government to develop the new program. The organisation has already been running a precursor program, training 600 volunteers across 80 groups nationwide.
“Once established, it could be readily scaled-up and help to significantly supplement Australia’s current annual humanitarian intake, which remains an important goal,” Button said.
The chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, Paul Power, said the government’s reforms were “a positive step in developing a community sponsorship program that enables Australian community members to band together and support new refugees to settle in their community”.
“It has the framework for further improvements to enable Australians of all backgrounds to be involved in raising funds and supporting the settlement of new refugees in Australia.”
Labor’s shadow minister for multicultural affairs, Andrew Giles, said community refugee sponsorship was a valuable initiative “harnessing the generosity of Australians to support the world’s most vulnerable make new lives here”.
“But it should be accessible, affordable and additional to our commitments as a nation … because community sponsorship shouldn’t be about passing costs onto the community.”
The global gold standard for community sponsorship is held to be Canada’s Private Sponsorship of Refugees scheme, which has sponsored more than 325,000 refugees – additional to the government’s intake – over 40 years.
The UK, New Zealand, Ireland and the US have committed to similar programs.
The home affairs department’s own review of its existing community support program this year found it was too expensive, structurally flawed and ineffective in resettling significant numbers of refugees.
Original article by Ben Doherty for The Guardian available here.