The government maintains a humanitarian refugee program that includes several types of visas available to refugees for resettlement in the country. UNHCR identifies and refers the majority of applicants considered under the program. For the fiscal year that began on July 1, the intake remained at 13,750. In 2015-16 authorities reserved at least 1,000 places for women at risk and at least 1,500 for Syrians. In September 2015 the government announced it would accept an additional 12,000 refugees from Syria and Iraq for permanent resettlement, in addition to the annual refugee intake of 13,750.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees.
The number of asylum seekers arriving by sea significantly increased between 2008 and 2013, putting pressure on detention center capacity, processing times, and the capacity of the humanitarian refugee program. In the 2012-13 fiscal year, the government recorded 25,750 such arrivals. As of May 31, 28,329 asylum seekers were living in the community while authorities processed their cases. The country retained third party processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea for asylum seekers who arrived after July 19, 2013. Authorities continued their policy of not settling those arrivals in the country and forced intercepted boats carrying smuggled persons back into the territorial waters of their country of embarkation when safe to do so. Since the inception of OSB in 2013, authorities have transferred 2,125 asylum seekers to Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island as of May 31, and there were 537 voluntary returns to country of origin during this period. In June the immigration minister reported that authorities had turned back 28 boats transporting asylum seekers since 2013.
The law authorizes the immigration minister to designate a country as a regional offshore processing center, if the minister determines it is in the national interest to do so, and requires the minister to notify parliament, which may then disapprove the proposed designation within five working days of notification. The law states that such a designation “need not be limited by reference to the international obligations or domestic law of that country.” Under the government’s policy on asylum processing for unauthorized maritime arrivals, asylum seekers transferred to third countries for regional processing have their asylum claims assessed by the country in which the claim is processed.
In 2013 the previous Labor government entered into a Regional Resettlement Arrangement with Papua New Guinea to send all unauthorized maritime arrivals to Papua New Guinea for assessment and to resettle those found to be refugees in Papua New Guinea. In 2013 Nauru became part of the arrangement. The government then began transferring all unauthorized maritime asylum seeker arrivals to Papua New Guinea and Nauru for processing. As of September Papua New Guinea had not approved any permanent resettlement arrangements but had granted refugee status to at least 50 individuals for release into the local community to receive support services at an open facility, including language training, cultural orientation, and case support. In 2014 the government reached agreement with Cambodia to resettle refugees on a voluntary basis from the processing center in Nauru. Of the five refugees settled in Cambodia, four voluntarily returned to their country of origin. In October 2015 the Nauruan government announced it would expedite processing for the 600 outstanding refugee claims and claimants would be able to move freely around the island, while maintaining access to assistance from the regional processing center.
In 2014 parliament passed a law that the government stated, “fundamentally changes Australia’s approach to managing asylum seekers” and was partly aimed at addressing a backlog of approximately 30,000 asylum applications. The legislation provided additional clarity and consistency in the powers to detain and move vessels and persons; introduced three-year temporary protection visas (TPV) for those who arrived between August 13, 2012 and December 31, 2013; and introduced a “fast-track” assessment process for those who arrived during this period. It also established a Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) that enabled TPV holders to apply for five-year visas to work in non-metropolitan areas. After holding a SHEV for three and a half years, an applicant would be eligible to apply for other onshore visas, such as a permanent skilled visa.
There is a statutory obligation for the government to facilitate access to legal representation for persons in immigration detention. In March 2014 the federal government tightened access to government-funded legal assistance to only those that arrived through authorized channels.
In May there were 399 persons in immigration detention for longer than 730 days and the average duration authorities held them in detention facilities was 459 days.
There were no children (younger than 18 years) in immigration detention in the country as of May 31, compared with 118 in 2014. There were 50 children on Nauru and none on Manus Island. In 2014 the government announced arrangements to enable more minors to reside in the community while authorities processed their applications.
On May 2, UNHCR stated, “There is no doubt that the current policy of offshore processing and prolonged detention is immensely harmful…Despite efforts by the Governments of Papua New Guinea and Nauru, arrangements in both countries have proved completely untenable….The situation of these people has deteriorated progressively over time, as UNHCR has witnessed firsthand over numerous visits since the opening of the centers.”
In February the Australian High Court threw out a challenge to the existence of the country’s offshore immigration detention center on Nauru. In March protests occurred in major cities after authorities prepared to return a one-year-old girl to Nauru 24 hours after her transfer to a Brisbane hospital for severe burns. Doctors refused to release the infant and the Victorian government issued a public letter to the prime minister criticizing the federal government’s stance on children in detention, and offered to resettle the refugees in Victoria.
More than 1,800 academics urged the prime minister to call a summit to create a more “just and humane approach” to handling asylum seekers arriving by sea. The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea ruled in April that the detention of asylum seekers at the Manus Island processing center was illegal. The Australian government stated in August it intended to close the Manus Island Center, but did not reveal a specific date.
Durable Solutions: The government accepted refugees for resettlement from third countries and funded refugee resettlement services. The Humanitarian Settlement Services program provided case-specific assistance that included finding accommodation, employment programs, language training, registering for income support and health care, and connecting with community and recreational programs.