By allowing more asylum seekers and refugees to apply for visas through complementary pathways, Australia can help discourage boat journeys and make a real difference to global needs in the process, Claire Higgins writes.
For several years, headlines and Senate hearings have made clear the human and economic cost of ‘stopping the boats’. Despite the damage, Australia’s hard-line approach to asylum seekers remains in place, and continues to impact the mental and physical health of people who sought Australia’s protection. But there are humane policy alternatives.
Known as complementary pathways, these visas come in several forms. Humanitarian visas can be issued at embassies to grant asylum seekers ‘protected entry’ into another country, allowing people to move safely across international borders and avoid taking a potentially exploitative or dangerous journey. Or, community groups can sponsor extra resettlement places for refugees, and commit to helping new arrivals to integrate and thrive.
Real-world examples abound. In the years that Australia has maintained offshore processing on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea, costing billions of dollars and the lives of more than a dozen young refugees, other countries have been expanding complementary pathways. Canada has welcomed tens of thousands of extra refugees through its well-established community sponsorship program.
Italy and France have worked with faith-based organisations to create the award-winning ‘Humanitarian Corridors’ through which Syrians, Eritreans, Iraqis and others have flown safely into Europe to claim protection.
Brazilian embassies in the Middle East have issued thousands of humanitarian visas to people affected by the civil war in Syria, who can then travel on to Brazil to access protection.
Australia already has some of these tools at hand. Following a pilot phase, a small-scale community sponsorship program was rolled out in 2017. Meanwhile, the visa subclass 201 allows people who have not yet fled their home countries to apply for protection in Australia.
But, unlike Canada’s well-regarded scheme, Australia’s community sponsorship program is not added to the annual humanitarian resettlement program funded by government – rather, places filled under this program take away from the government quota, effectively shifting the cost of refugee resettlement onto community groups.
And, unlike Brazil, which recognises that refugees may not possess all the documentation that would ordinarily be required for a visa, the application process and eligibility criteria for a visa subclass 201 are not simplified nor easy for prospective applicants to understand.
Complementary pathways can have real benefits, both for refugees and for states. The European Commission has found that by allowing refugees to seek authorisation for travel, individuals can make a more informed decision about that journey – and may avoid not only exploitation but a long and uncertain wait for what may be an unsuccessful protection claim.
The Australian Human Rights Commission has recommended that if access to the visa subclass 201 and to skilled and student visas were expanded, this would provide greater access to protection ‘through a managed process’, and constitute a ‘dual benefit’ for asylum seekers and the Australian government.
The benefits would be long-term. Complementary pathways can allow national authorities to better plan for the housing, educational and employment needs of asylum seekers, and in turn help to address issues of xenophobia within receiving communities.
Meanwhile, the resettlement of some refugees can help to ease conditions on the ground for others who remain in countries that are hosting large numbers of displaced people, making it easier for them to integrate locally or wait for the opportunity to repatriate voluntarily should conditions improve at home.
For those refugees who travel safely through a complementary pathway – such as the 2,600 children, women and men assisted by the Humanitarian Corridors – the consequences can be life-saving. Compare these outcomes to Australia’s current asylum policy.
Several hundred refugees and asylum seekers are still living in limbo on Nauru and in Papua New Guinea. Their future is unclear.
The United States has resettled more than 600 people who were held offshore, under a deal struck between the Turnbull government and the Obama administration in 2016, but there is no guarantee this will continue.
Now, those previously held on Manus Island have been moved into a new limbo in Port Moresby. Dozens of asylum seekers have been transferred into a prison-like facility called the Bomana Immigration Centre – built by Australia for a reported $24 million – in which detainees are not permitted mobile phones, medication, or access to their lawyers or doctors.
Meanwhile, several hundred refugees and asylum seekers are held in closed or community detention in Australia, while more than around 30,000 others live in limbo across the country.
The time is right for Australia to change its approach. The UN refugee agency has issued a new strategy that aims to expand complementary pathways so that within a decade, two million refugees will have accessed protection and solutions in third countries through these channels.
Meanwhile, 181 states – including Australia – have adopted a new non-binding international agreement known as the Global Compact on Refugees, which aims to promote more equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees.
Australia already enjoys a record of successfully resettling refugees, and the annual humanitarian program remains very popular with the Australian public.
By joining with other states to expand complementary pathways – and ensure these are additional to other means of accessing protection – Australia can help asylum seekers to avoid dangerous boat journeys.
The country can move away from a harsh asylum seeker policy that has been condemned internationally. By allowing asylum seekers and refugees greater access to visas, Australia can stand alongside those states whose policies are internationally recognised as models of good practice – and save lives in the process.