A year ago I began a journey to research safer pathways for refugees and asylum seekers. Here’s what I found: We have the solutions, we just need the leadership.
For decades Australia has spent billions of dollars and an incalculable amount of political energy to deter people seeking asylum by boat. We’ve locked people up, warehoused them on remote islands, and pushed their boats away. These policies have caused irreparable harm to women, men, kids and families, and yet both major political parties in Australia basically agree with them.
I’ve always wondered what would happen if instead of this single focus on pushing people away, we put some real money and energy into opening up safe and legal pathways for refugees to get to countries safely.
Can we eliminate the need for people smugglers entirely by helping refugees to navigate to safety?
Last year I embarked on a Churchill Fellowship to explore, document and share evidence from around the world about how other countries have welcomed large numbers of people seeking asylum into their communities. I visited Brazil, USA, Canada, Italy, Germany and Switzerland searching for new ideas and tested solutions.
While most countries are taking an increasingly restrictive approach towards asylum seekers, I found evidence in each place of innovative programs that have worked to create safe and legal alternative pathways for refugees.
Findings from my Churchill Fellowship are all available from: www.makerefuge.org/publications
Three exciting solutions we should adopt in Australia
There are three obvious solutions that could be adopted by Australia to both help refugees and eliminate demand for people smugglers.
1. Let refugees migrate for work
Almost half of the world’s refugees are working age, yet most are stuck in countries where they cannot legally work. Lack of work rights is a major factor pushing refugees to take dangerous journeys to other countries where they have a better chance of being able to make a living. At the same time, countries like Australia face critical skill shortages in particular sectors such as healthcare, engineering and IT - skills that many refugees have in abundance. As many wealthy countries like Australia have ageing populations we also just need more young workers, full stop.
Given these benefits, why don’t we make it easier for refugees to migrate for work?
That’s what the organisation I work for, Talent Beyond Boundaries, is trying to do. We have pilots running in Canada and Australia, working with dozens of companies to hire refugees and help them relocate, and we are also exploring the UK. Refugees have the skills and employers want to hire them, but refugees face lots of barriers to labour mobility. These include lack of funds, lack of evidence of their identity and qualifications, and lack of information about international job opportunities, to name just three.
Opening up skilled pathways for refugees could be a game-changer.
If just 1 percent of the world’s working age refugees were able to relocate with their families for work, nearly 500,000 refugees would have an additional pathway out of displacement. That’s ten times the number of refugees who will be resettled globally this year.
And this isn’t just theory. The post-World War II displacement crisis was practically solved by allowing refugees and stateless people to move for work. In Australia, our post-war economy flourished as a result of a program that assisted 170,000 displaced persons to resettle for work between 1945 and 1949.
Australia should create a special hybrid skilled/humanitarian visa program to enable refugees to overcome migration barriers and come to Australia with their families for work.
Australia alone accepts roughly 130,000 permanent skilled migrants each year. If just a fraction of this program was dedicated to talented refugees we would make a huge impact.
If Australia adopted such a program we would also be in a great position to advocate to other countries in our region and around the world to follow suit. By scaling up refugee labour mobility pathways globally we could start to solve the global displacement crisis in a way that actually benefits the global economy.
I’m excited that my colleague, solicitor and registered migration agent Marina Brizar, has been awarded a 2018 Churchill Fellowship to explore the creation of a skilled/humanitarian hybrid visa for Australia. Marina’s research will be critical to driving forward this idea with the Australian government - watch this space.
2. Create a humanitarian admissions pathway for asylum seekers
Who would risk a dangerous boat journey if they could just pay for a plane ticket? This is the question I always ponder when I hear people arguing that we need to be tough on asylum seekers in order to “save lives at sea”.
If we really want to save peoples lives, why don’t we make it easier for asylum seekers to come by plane?
This strategy is called “humanitarian admission”, and it is used in a wide range of countries including Brazil, Italy, Germany and to a narrow extent the United States. Brazil’s humanitarian admission programs (see here and here) have been particularly successful at eliminating people smuggling routes, with minimal cost to Brazilian tax payers.
Australia could create a special humanitarian visa to use in response to large displacement crises that significantly increase the risk of irregular migration to Australia. Eligibility for the visa could be limited to particular nationals or anyone impacted by a particular crisis, as long as they meet Australia’s security and character requirements. Depending on the nature of the crisis the visa could be time-bound or permanent. This would provide a legal admission pathway for groups of people forced to flee their homes for humanitarian reasons, therefore eliminating the need for irregular migration.
Under a humanitarian admission program the government could expect visa holders to pay for their own travel (as is the case with irregular migration), which would significantly reduce the cost to taxpayers. This approach would be additional to refugee resettlement, which is designed to provide a solution for the most vulnerable refugees.
For more about how humanitarian admission works in other countries and recommendations for Australia see my full report: Passport to Safety: What Australia can learn from other countries about humanitarian admissions pathways for refugees.
3. Empower the Australian community to sponsor refugees
Refugee sponsorship programs enable ordinary citizens to help refugees to settle into their communities. By drawing on the goodwill of everyone in society, community sponsorship programs can significantly increase a country’s capacity to welcome refugees.
Many countries have now adopted refugee community sponsorship programs, but Canada’s programs are by far the largest and most sophisticated. Canadian citizens now privately sponsor around 20,000 refugees each year, and a staggering one in every three Canadians have reported a connection to refugee sponsorship in the past two years.
In Canada, sponsors fundraise to provide financial assistance and accommodation to sponsored refugees for a full year. Sponsors also provide emotional support and friendship. The program has incredibly positive outcomes for both refugees and sponsors.
In recent years, Australia has been experimenting with community sponsorship, starting with a small pilot which ran from 2013 to 2017, followed by the Community Sponsorship Program in 2017.
The Community Support Program has a number of flaws that would need to be addressed for it to provide a viable additional pathway for refugees. These include exorbitant visa fees, bureaucratic requirements which stifle community engagement, and the fact that the program takes places from the existing refugee resettlement quota.
Australia should provide greater opportunities for citizens and groups to sponsor refugees, drawing on lessons from Canada.
This includes eliminating visa fees and designing the program in a way that maximises community involvement - so that everyone from families to sporting clubs to universities and workplaces can sponsor refugees.
For more on Canada’s programs see my report: Harnessing the Kindness of Strangers: Lessons from Canada’s refugee sponsorship programs for Australia (or see this summary version).
To fully realise these solutions we need political will and leadership.
The global refugee system should not function like a lottery, but that’s what it is. Less than 0.4 per cent of the world’s refugees are able to secure a resettlement spot in a safe country where they can rebuild their lives. With the odds so cruelly stacked against refugees, it’s little wonder so many resort to people smugglers for a solution.
Deterrence policies do nothing to address the causes of impacts of displacement. They just push displacement elsewhere. Despite all the efforts of Australia and other countries to push away people seeking asylum, there are more people displaced by conflict around the world now than at any point since the end of World War II.
But we do have the solutions. We just need political leadership to implement them.
Thank you so much to the Churchill Trust for the incredible opportunity to conduct this research.
Applications for the 2019 Churchill Fellowship round close on 30 April 2019. I thoroughly recommend applying! To apply go to: https://www.churchilltrust.com.au/application-process/how-to-apply/