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Community sponsorship of refugees in Australia: Is the time ripe for a bigger and better program?

Around the world a record 65.6 million people are forcibly displaced from their homes due to conflict or persecution. According to the United Nations 22.5 million of these people are refugees. Now, members of the UN General Assembly are attempting to negotiate a global compact on refugees, to boost international solidarity and support to the resettlement of refugees. Members of the global community are searching for solutions to respond to this challenge.

Real Australians say welcome. Photo: Courtesy Save the Children Australia
Real Australians say welcome. Photo: Courtesy Save the Children Australia

One of the ideas being floated is the expanded use of community sponsorship of refugees to open more places for displaced people to find safety in Australia.

The idea of community sponsorship is simple enough – community sponsors in Australia would fund the resettlement of refugees living in limbo in other countries waiting for a long-term solution. Sponsors would provide refugees with practical support through the integration process and this would be in addition to existing government-funded resettlement programs. More refugees can find a safe place to call home, and be supported in integrating into the Australian community, at minimal cost to the taxpayer.

Community sponsorship of refugees is not a new idea. It has been a feature of Canada’s refugee system since 1978 and has helped resettle more than 300,000 people. Now, a consortium of refugee and humanitarian organisations under the umbrella of the Australian Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative (CRSI) – including Save the Children, Amnesty International and the Refugee Council of Australia – is urging the Australian government to take a similar approach.

While it may seem that community sponsorship is a relatively new policy idea, Australia has a long history and experience with engaging the community in the process of welcoming and settling refugees. Our first foray into this concept began in 1979 when the Fraser government introduced the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS) as part of Australia’s response to the Indochinese refugee crisis.

The scheme was introduced to take pressure off government-run migrant centres and hostels that operated as reception facilities for resettled and spontaneous refugee arrivals. Instead of being processed through these migrant centres, refugees coming to Australia would be moved directly into the community and be supported by community groups and individuals. The CRSS was initially set up to support only Indochinese refugees, but was later expanded to support Eastern European and Latin American refugees, and eventually to all refugees and humanitarian entrants.

Under the CRSS, established voluntary agencies, community groups, individuals and businesses could apply to participate in the scheme by putting forward an offer of support. Eligibility to participate was dependent on several factors, including the standing of the group or organisation and the level of financial resources. Sponsors also needed to demonstrate the capacity to assist refugees, including previous experience with refugee settlement and community welfare matters.

The scheme ran until 1997 and helped to settle more than 30,000 refugees, allowing the community to play a vital role in supporting refugees in their integration into Australia. Importantly, the scheme was geared toward “high needs entrants” – those who had no family or links in Australia, who had experienced torture and trauma, or women-at-risk.

While the CRSS was deemed successful, it was not without problems. For example, there were deficiencies in the matching of refugees to sponsors, especially in rural areas, that resulted in some refugees not being able to access appropriate services and employment opportunities. There was also evidence that some groups were not adequately prepared for the level of financial support required and that some problems were caused by overbearing behaviour on the part of sponsors.

In recent months, the Australian government introduced a Community Support Programme (CSP) offering the chance for private sponsors from the Australian community to sponsor up to 1000 places out of Australia’s annual refugee resettlement quota (currently 16,250 places a year). The CSP allows Australian businesses and individuals to sponsor refugees for resettlement and is heavily focused on providing an avenue for businesses to employ refugees. Under the program, priority is given to those who are aged between 18 and 50 who have an offer of employment or have personal attributes that would enable them to become financially self-sufficient within 12 months of arrival.

The new CSP poses a separate set of problems to the CRSS. First, the focus on “job ready” entrants makes it more akin to a skilled migration pathway. While it is important that refugees be supported in finding employment, employability should not be one of the criteria to our offering them protection. Secondly, the program is prohibitively expensive. It will cost sponsors more than $100,000 to sponsor a family of five under the CSP, including visa application charges of about $30,000, airfares and medical screening fees. Thirdly, the CSP is not additional to the current refugee quota, meaning that each entrant to Australia under the CSP results in one less refugee resettled through government funding. Thus, questions around fairness and shifting the cost of resettlement from government to community are issues that need to be solved.

Community involvement in refugee resettlement has proved itself to be effective in the past – in Australia and elsewhere. But if we are to implement a community sponsorship scheme on a larger scale, policy makers need to carefully consider the objectives and design of such a scheme and ensure that programs will address the needs of refugees, sponsors and the broader Australian community. If that can be done, there is no reason why the generosity and kindness of the Australian people cannot be harnessed to help offer protection to those who so desperately need it.

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