Posted on February 1, 2012

Visa Cut Angers Refugee Activists

Kirsty Needham, The Age, February 1, 2012

Tens of thousands of residents trying to bring persecuted family members to Australia on special humanitarian visas stand almost no chance of success this year, with the program cut to just 750 places.

Only 149 places are left for the next six months, despite a backlog of 20,500 people with family links to Australia, including 12,000 husbands, wives or children seeking resettlement.

The dramatic cut in special humanitarian places, compared with 3000 visas granted last year, and 9000 in 2003, has been linked directly to the increase in boat arrivals by the federal government.

But the Refugee Council of Australia wants the government to scrap its controversial linking of the two programs, whereby each visa granted to a boat arrival causes one place to be lost from the special humanitarian program.

In a submission to a government review of the refugee intake, the council says drastic cuts to the visa class designed to bring close family of refugees to Australia is creating increased “tensions and frustrations” between community groups, and greater hostility towards boat arrivals seen as “taking places” from people trying to sponsor family.

The council has documented separated families facing financial distress, “survivor guilt”, and in some cases resorting to encouraging those left behind in dire circumstances to make the journey by boat.

“If there is no way we can reunite with our family, we have little choice but to help our family come by boat,” said one Burmese refugee living in Bendigo.

An African community leader in NSW said if Australia committed to bring in refugees it should “finish the job” — “We would have fewer cases of people going for counselling if families were here.”

The Immigration Department, in a briefing paper, has warned the special humanitarian program “is facing the greatest pressure since its inception” and this year is “likely to be the smallest program in 30 years”.

The federal government is considering introducing private sponsorship to expand the places available without hitting the federal budget.

Refugee council chief executive Paul Power said few refugee families could afford to bear the full cost.

He said Australia was the only country in the world that limited its humanitarian intake by creating a numerical link with asylum seekers arriving. “It is a peculiarly Australian debate,” he said.

The council’s submission said the significant number of unaccompanied minors who had arrived by boat this year meant applications for family reunion under the humanitarian visa class would skyrocket in coming years and the program had become unviable.