John Menadue. A one-off increase in the humanitarian program rather than a safe haven is now possible.

Sep 9, 2015

In this blog several of us have advocated a safe haven arrangement, as was the case for the Kosovars, to meet the present Syrian refugee crisis. It was then clear that the government was not going to do much at all. That has now changed. The government has been reluctantly dragged along by state premiers, the backbench and the community generally. A part of the change has been the heart-rending photos of the young toddler lying lifeless on a beach in Turkey.

The safe haven for Kosovars was predicated on quick processing and movement to Australia for a short stay in a number of designated camps. The people were required to return home at the end of a specified period. This arrangement worked reasonably well because most of them went home voluntarily when the situation in the Balkans cooled off. However there were some ugly scenes chasing people who had disappeared or who refused to leave. That undid much of the good will.

The East Timorese safe haven arrangement worked much better because they were evacuated to escape a specific situation that improved quickly. Almost all went home without complaint.

But the bottom line is that Syrians will not be able to go home in the foreseeable future.

A problem with an immediate increase in permanent settlement in the humanitarian program is that the Department of Immigration and Border Protection will find it difficult to handle such a huge increase unless it changes its processes or even brings back experienced people to form a task force. Current processing time for a refugee visa is well over twelve months on average. Medical screening, biometric screening and security checks cause long delays.

UNHCR may well ask for safe haven initially as they have in the past in emergencies. They might ask Australia to accept group resettlement through an UNHCR dossier process. But Australia has been highly resistant to this approach as we prefer to undertake a case determination by an Australian officer.

In short, a safe haven arrangement would allow quick processing which is essential. But the intention must be to offer permanent residence subject to health, security and other checks.

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