Australians are asking: “Why don’t we have our own sponsorship program?”

Asher Hirsch, Khanh Hoang, and Anthea Vogl

Originally published in Asylum Insight

December 2019

Last month the world watched as Amirhossein Sahragard, a refugee from Australia’s offshore detention centre in Papua New Guinea, was resettled to Toronto by a group of dedicated Canadians. While the Australian Government has maintained its hard-line policy that no refugee detained offshore will ever be resettled in Australia, the generosity of Canadians has highlighted to power of community sponsorship.

Many Australians rightly wondered why we don’t have our own sponsorship program like Canada, that would allow community members to band together to sponsor and support new refugees into their communities.

Despite introducing the Community Support Program in 2017, a program claimed to be based on the Canadian model, Australia’s program does not operate as a true community sponsorship scheme like in Canada, UK, Ireland and a growing number of other countries.

Instead, as we argue in a newly published paper in Refuge, the Community Support Program represents a market-driven outsourcing and privatisation of Australia’s refugee resettlement priorities and commitments.

The Community Support Program does not expand Australia’s overall resettlement commitment but instead takes places from within the existing humanitarian resettlement program. The Australian program charges sponsors exorbitant application fees, while simultaneously prioritising refugees who are ‘job ready’, with English language skills and able to integrate quickly, undermining the principle of resettling the most vulnerable. Rather than seeking to encourage wider community involvement in sponsorship, the Community Support Program instead has become an expensive de-facto family reunion program.

Indeed, the Community Support Program has been promoted by the Australian Government as a revenue raising initiative, and as providing “a revenue gain to the budget of $26.9 million” over the first four years. This revenue gain comes from the high costs of the visa fees, intermediary payments and cost of living support. All together, these fees and payments could total over AUD100,000 for a refugee family of five, including non-refundable visa fees of almost AUD20,000 for the primary sponsored refugee.

As such, Australia’s Community Support Program provides a cautionary tale for countries looking to establish community sponsorship programs as a means of expanding and improving existing resettlement programs.

However, Australia’s own history shows that another way is possible.

Australia’s first engagement with community sponsorship was the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS), which ran for almost 20 years from 1979–1997, around the same time Canada was developing its Private Refugee Sponsorship program. Both programs started as a practical response to the Indochinese refugee crisis.

At its core, the CRSS served as a mechanism to allow refugees to bypass government-run migrant centres and hostels and be moved directly into the Australian community, into the care of those members of the local community who had voluntarily undertaken to provide assistance.

The aims of the CRSS were to:

  • give members of the community an opportunity to become directly involved in the settlement of refugees and contribute to their integration;

  • provide an alternative means of settlement for refugees who have a capacity to integrate quickly into the Australian community;

  • encourage greater awareness of the Government’s refugee resettlement program; and

  • achieve a more geographically dispersed settlement of refugees through the participation of the Australian community.

Between 1980 and 1993, the Australian Government worked collaboratively with Australian church groups, ethnic groups, and the wider Australian community under the CRSS banner. The CRSS helped to settle over 30,000 refugees in Australia and, at its peak, accounted for approximately 32 per cent of Australia’s overall refugee and humanitarian intake.

The CRSS was formally disestablished in 1997 and replaced with a more professionalised settlement service, which saw community-based volunteers replaced with settlement service workers.

However, this innovative program provides insights into how Australia can reinvigorate a truly community-led sponsorship program.

Instead of focusing on charging desperate families tens of thousands of dollars to reunite with refugee family members, community sponsorship should encourage wider community involvement in both fundraising and providing resettlement support to new communities.

The success of the CRSS and even more recent Australian experiences (such as the overwhelming offers of support for Syrian refugees in 2015) clearly demonstrate that the Australian community is willing and able to help sponsor refugees.

Wider community involvement in sponsorship helps spread the costs and the responsibility of settlement support. It also opens a wider network of support and community members to newly arrived refugees, tapping into the social capital that a diverse range of volunteers can bring.

The Community Support Program currently has a number of prohibitive and unrealistic employment related criteria that have proved to be a barrier to gaining meaningful work. The experience of Canada, where immediate employment requirements are not imposed, shows that such criteria aren’t needed when volunteers and sponsors are willing to help someone find a job. In fact, in Canada 50% of sponsored refugees find work in their first year.

Finally, as with the CRSS, wide community involvement can also help refugees to successfully resettle in more diverse geographically areas, helping the government achieve its current policy priorities of increasing settlement in regional areas of Australia.

The Community Refugee Sponsorship Initiative is calling on the Government to implement a truly community-led community sponsorship program in Australia. Not only would such a program increase Australia’s overall resettlement capacity, it also has the potential to transform local communities across Australia.

Together with the My New Neighbour Campaign, over 30,000 Australians have expressed interest in a community sponsorship program.

With an overhaul of the current program, or at least significant reform of the Community Support Program, Australia could lead by example, rather than serving as cautionary tale for other states considering community sponsorship programs.