Address to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees on World Refugee Day
Canberra, Friday 20 June 2008
Thank you to our hosts, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, for organising today’s event. I’m very pleased to participate in this celebration of World Refugee Day.
The Australian Government works closely with UNHCR on a number of fronts to promote and support the protection rights of refugees. So it is only appropriate that today we stand under the same banner of ‘Refugee Protection’.
This is a perfect theme for World Refugee Day, but it inevitably leads us to ask: how is Australia’s role in providing refugee protection understood? What does it mean to average Australians?
It is no secret that under the previous government, the issue of refugee protection was the subject of a deeply divisive debate. Australia’s international reputation was tarnished by the way the previous government sought to demonise refugees for its own domestic political purposes. This is unfortunate, since it overshadowed some of the positive work on refugee protection that continued during those years.
The Rudd Labor Government brings a different approach to refugee and humanitarian issues.
We believe that Australia has a very good story to tell about its commitment to refugee protection, and that it’s time that Australians heard about it.
Australians should feel proud that we have one of the most generous offshore humanitarian programs in the world.
Australians should feel proud that we have a system for refugee protection that is designed to ensure a fair go for those who seek Australia’s protection, and a humane response to those who need that protection.
Australians should feel proud that our nation enjoys international recognition for its role in responding to the protection needs of refugees and other displaced people; that we are a world leader in key areas of refugee protection.
And, in particular, Australians should also feel proud of our world class settlement program that is so successful in helping refugees and humanitarian entrants rebuild their lives in Australia.
The Rudd Labor Government is focused on strengthening and promoting Australia’s contribution to refugee protection to ensure it continues to be a source of national pride for Australians into the future.
Today, I’d like to speak on each of these four areas in more detail.
1. A fair go
A fair go means having robust and effective arrangements for considering the claims of people who seek Australia’s protection.
This Government is committed to exploring ways to enhance Australia’s asylum system and improve the efficiency of Australia’s determination processes.
One way of doing this would be the introduction of complementary protection for people who may not be Refugees, but who are owed protection under other international human rights instruments, such as the Convention Against Torture. I have requested my Department to initiate consultations on how this might be achieved.
We aim to rebuild confidence in the integrity of our immigration system, to ensure that we are meeting our international obligations and to reaffirm our commitment to protecting some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
Where people are found to be in need of protection, Australia should provide it, and we should feel proud that we have done so.
I am very proud to be able to say that this Government has already fulfilled a number of commitments to revisit Australia’s protection policy settings.
Since coming into office, the Rudd Labor Government has brought an end to the shameful Pacific Solution by closing the centres on Nauru and Manus Island, and by resettling in Australia those people who in some cases had been languishing there for years.
We have also abolished the unjust Temporary Protection visa, thus enabling about 1000 refugees access to permanent residence to rebuild their lives in Australia and reunite with separated immediate family members.
I am proud to be able to say that in future, asylum seekers who are found to be refugees will receive a permanent visa.
Maintenance of the integrity of our borders is critical and will continue to be a priority under this Government – but it is important that Australians understand that this has little to do with how we treat people once they’re here.
Strong border security includes working to stabilise displaced populations in source countries, strong regional engagement and cooperation on issues such as people smuggling.
2. Offshore humanitarian program
The controversies of recent years have sadly clouded over the fact that Australia has a proud history of providing a generous offshore Humanitarian Program.
Since 1945, Australia has resettled around 700 000 people in humanitarian need.
Australians should know that this nation offers one of the three largest humanitarian settlement programs in the world, alongside the USA and Canada.
The Rudd Government is deeply committed to building on Australia’s Humanitarian Program.
This commitment is reflected in the 2008-09 budget, which increases the number of refugee and humanitarian places available to 13 500.
This includes 6500 places for refugees, with a one-off increase of 500 places in the coming financial year to assist people affected by the conflict in Iraq. This represents the largest refugee component of the Program since 1985/86.
The remaining 7000 places will be offered to Special Humanitarian Program including Protection visa entrants. From 2009-10 onwards, the 7000 will be increased by 750 places – to 7750 places.
Today I am pleased to announce the regional allocations for the 2008-09 Humanitarian Program.
The composition of Australia’s Program is always decided after taking into consideration the views expressed across the Australian community, non-government organisations and the UNHCR.
The 2008-09 refugee and humanitarian intake will draw equally from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Each of these regions will be allocated 33 percent, with the remaining one percent allocated for contingencies.
In addition to this, 500 further places have been set aside specifically for Iraqi refugees in 2008-09.
In relation to the our Government’s commitment to African refugees, I would like to take this opportunity to state publicly that the Rudd Government rejects the provocative remarks made by the former Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Kevin Andrews, about the settlement prospects of Sudanese refugees.
I would also like to make the point that, contrary to what some have claimed, there is not – and never was – a stop put on refugee arrivals from Africa, and the annual intake of African refugees has not reduced because of concerns about settlement.
It is true that over the period from 2005-06 to 2007-08, the proportion of the program for African refugees was reduced from 70 per cent to 30 per cent; however, the 70 per cent intake was a historical high because Africa was where the greatest need was.
A change in global circumstances over subsequent years has been reflected in the reduced allocation of places to refugees from Africa over a period of years.
What I want to stress today is that the Rudd Labor Government is firmly committed to supporting African refugees and others from that continent in humanitarian need.
This commitment is reflected in next year’s program, which increases the number of places set aside for people from Africa to 3548 or 33 per cent of the total program – up from the current allocation of 30 per cent.
This means almost 300 more people from strife-torn regions in Africa will arrive in Australia.
Australia has continued its commitment to the Middle East by making a major contribution to resettle those affected by the conflict in Iraq.
In addition to the 500 extra places for Iraqi refuges that I have already mentioned, the Government had previously set aside 600 places for Iraqi employees who supported Australian troops in Iraq, and their families, to resettle in Australia.
This policy was developed in recognition of the grave risk these people faced in Iraq because of their engagement with the Australian Government.
3. International recognition and leadership
In many ways, Australia’s offshore Humanitarian Program represents world’s best practice.
That is why we believe Australia has a responsibility to take opportunities, wherever possible, to promote to other countries the benefits of an offshore Humanitarian Program and to share what we have learnt from our own experiences.
Another area which will be a focus of the Government is working with other countries and UNHCR to resolve protracted refugee situations.
In particular, Australia is committed to working with UNHCR’s Asia and the Pacific Bureau in efforts to find durable solutions for the protracted situations of the Burmese refugees in Thailand and the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal. I am pleased to note that in the last 12 months, more than 10 000 refugees from Burma have left Thailand under the auspices of the world’s largest current resettlement effort.
Some 2800 of those people have been granted visas for resettlement in Australia in 2007-08.
Since November 2005, Australia has also had a key role in working with other major resettlement countries and the UNHCR as part of a coordinated international effort to develop practical strategies to resolve the caseload of Bhutanese refugees in Nepal.
To date Australia has granted a total of 165 visas to Bhutanese refugees. Last month we welcomed the arrival of 24 people for settlement in Australia, the first in a continuing program of resettlement.
On another front, Australia has also been involved in meetings with Ambassadors in Dhaka to discuss the protracted situation of the Rohingyas in Bangladesh.
We have been active in seeking to improve the conditions of these people from Burma, who are living in particularly difficult circumstances.
In 2008-09, we plan to resettle 100 Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh in Australia.
The Rudd Government is committed to continue to look for opportunities to assist in unlocking these and other protracted situations.
One of this Government’s key priorities is to enhance Australia’s engagement with the United Nations, and strengthening our partnership with UNHCR is an important part of this commitment.
Today, I am pleased to announce that Australia has extended a guest of Government invitation to High Commissioner Guterres for an official visit to Australia, at a time to be mutually agreed.
We believe that this will present an excellent and timely opportunity to strengthen the important relationship between UNHCR and Australia, and for Australia to share the knowledge and expertise it has to offer with the UNHCR and – through it – the international community.
By working cooperatively with UNHCR and other states, Australia has been able to ensure that places available under our program have been used to maximum effect, in a way that not only benefits the people resettled but also contributes to the international system of refugee protection.
The Government continues to look at ways in which Australia can strengthen its support to UNHCR and the international protection system.
The Australian Government’s 2008–09 Budget includes $9.9 million of unrestricted core funding for UNHCR – an increase of $1.6 million from the last financial year.
Additional contributions to UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies working to assist refugees will be made through AusAid’s $15 million International Refugee Fund and my Department’s $ 6.5 million Displaced Persons Program, which in 2008-09 will be supplemented by an additional $10m to help address the situation of displaced Iraqis in neighbouring and transit countries.
I am pleased to say that we have recently been recognised by UNHCR as a major donor.
4. Settlement programs
It’s important that Australians know that our country offers one of the most successful and comprehensive humanitarian settlement programs in the world.
Once visas are granted under the Humanitarian Program, Australia provides a wide range of services to ensure that people are able to make that journey from a refugee camp safely, in good health and with the information and support necessary to integrate into Australian society.
We provide pre-departure medical screening to ensure that any medical conditions are identified and treated and to ensure that people are fit to travel.
We also provide cultural orientation classes – a fantastic program to give people a taste of what their new life in Australia will be like, of the support they will receive, and what will happen upon their arrival.
Once people arrive in Australia, my Department provides a comprehensive program of initial, intensive settlement support for humanitarian entrants under the government-funded Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy.
These services are generally provided for about six months, but may be extended for particularly vulnerable clients.
Services for these clients include on-arrival accommodation, a package of household goods, linking up mainstream services such as Centrelink and Medicare, access to professional counselling, information and orientation to their new community and English language classes.
The Rudd Government intends to place more of a focus on delivering effective ways to assist humanitarian entrants into employment as quickly as possible.
This will include examining the expansion of the regional resettlement program, particularly in areas where there are critical labour shortages.
It is worth noting here, that approximately 75 per cent of humanitarian entrants are under of 30 years of age.
Settlement support provides these young people with a real opportunity to rebuild their lives and to make a worthwhile contribution to Australian society.
We are always looking for ways to improve the services and support that we provide for our humanitarian entrants.
We are currently in the process of enhancing the Integrated Humanitarian Settlement Strategy services.
From early July we will have in place Complex Case Support. My Department has been provided with $35.2 million over four years to establish this program.
Complex Case Support is designed to deliver specialised and intensive case management to recently arrived humanitarian entrants where pre-migration experiences, such as severe torture and trauma, significant medical conditions and/or crisis events after arrival in Australia present significant barriers to successful settlement.
This is a positive initiative that will support the small number of humanitarian entrants who have extensive needs beyond the scope of existing settlement services.
While Complex Case Support is primarily for persons who enter Australia under Australia’s Refugee and Special Humanitarian Program, other visa holders may also be eligible under exceptional circumstances.
The Humanitarian Program has changed the face of this nation.
Many of our ethnic communities, such as those from Vietnam and Africa, first arrived in Australia as refugees. They arrived with nothing and have rebuilt their lives in Australia, and our nation is far richer as a result.
The Government is committed to building on Australia’s Humanitarian Program in a way that Australians can be proud of.
We are a lucky country, but we’re also a generous country, and we can and should be proud of our contribution to meeting the protection needs of refugees.
Last update: 11 February 2010 at 14:17 AEST