Blog post by Susan Kneebone, Anthea Vogl and Kate Ogg

Australia is often cast as a newcomer to private or community sponsorship of refugees and community involvement in refugee resettlement. However, Australia’s first sponsorship program, the Community Refugee Resettlement Scheme (CRRS), was introduced in 1979. The program involved community members providing support to resettled Indochinese refugees. The CRRS expanded in the mid-1980s to include other refugee groups and continued until 1997. As well, while Australia’s contemporary sponsorship programs are recent in comparison to Canada’s continuous history with private sponsorship, Australia’s “new” pilot program for community sponsorship began in 2013, almost 10 years ago.

Since that time, there has been significant reform and expansion of Australia’s community sponsorship programs. However, the introduction of community sponsorship in Australia has been something of a stop-start affair. This is partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the slow and halting development of community sponsorship is more fundamentally due to the nature, design and scope of Australia’s contemporary programs, which are difficult to reconcile with key principles of refugee protection.

The Introduction of a New Australian Refugee Sponsorship Program

The Community Proposal Pilot (CPP) was the first of Australia’s recent private sponsorship programs. The CPP ran from 2013-2017 and, as the name suggests, it was implemented on a trial basis. Despite Australia’s earlier history with community involvement in refugee resettlement through the CRRS, the CPP was Australia’s first program for the full private sponsorship of refugees and those entitled to complementary protection by individuals, businesses, or community organisations.

The CPP provided for up to 500 places per annum from within Australia’s annual resettlement quota. That is, the places were not in addition to existing Australian Government annual quotas for refugee and complementary protection entrants. Therefore, the CPP did not meet what the community and private sponsorship literature has generally referred to as the principle of ‘additionality’.  

Beyond the absence of additionality, the CPP’s design was controversial and out of step with many existing sponsorship programs. This was because of the exorbitant cost of sponsorship. Under the program, visa application fees were approximately AU$19,200 for a single, primary application and an additional AU$2680 for secondary applicants (family members) attached to the applicant. These fees went directly to the Government and did not cover any of thereal costs of resettlement, such as housing or income, which were required to be funded in addition to application fees.

Under the CPP, applications to the Department of Immigration could only be made by mediating NGOs known as ‘approved proposing organisations’ (APOs), which represented a further layer of privatisation and outsourcing. APOs included established migration centres with long experience of resettlement of refugees and newer community associations. Significantly APOs charged sponsors directly for their services, which included assistance with visa application preparation, submission and administration, averaging about $AU11,000 per application. As such, the estimated total cost of sponsoring a family of five was prohibitive, at around $AU100,000.

Creating a permanent program?

At the close of the CPP, the Federal Government conducted a formal, public review of the program. Public submissions were highly critical of the program’s costs and its failure to create any additional resettlement places. Nevertheless, neither aspect of the program was reformed when the Government introduced the permanent Community Support Program (CSP) in 2017.

The CSP’s governing principles more or less mirrored the CPP’s design. However the CSP came with a new set of restrictive selection criteria. In addition to the CPP’s baseline criterion that sponsorsees qualify for a humanitarian visa, the CSP also required any sponsored applicant to be aged between 18 and 50; have adequate English; and have a job offer or skills to enable to enable them get a job quickly. These new criteria reflected a shift towards ‘employability’ and a focus on the successful integration of the primary applicant. The CSP is not designed to resettle the most vulnerable or most at-risk refugees, sincethose who are not job ready, who are over 50 and who lack English-language skills are not viable candidates for sponsorship under the program. There are also gendered implications under the additional criteria. The “job ready” requirement entails that single or female-headed households without an ‘employable’ family member, or those with major care responsibilities are less likely to qualify as primary applicants.

Alongside these criteria, the cost of sponsorship under the CSP continued to be an immense disincentive for community participation, as it was with the CPP. As Hirsch, Hoang and Vogl have traced, the Australian Government explicitly characterised the CPP and the CSP as revenue raisingmeasures. In 2017 the then conservative Liberal Government said that the advantage of “a sustainable model of private sponsorship for refugees [was that it] minimises costs to governments.” Governmental budget estimates for 2017-18 openly projected that a permanent sponsorship program would “provide a net revenue gain to the budget of $26.9 million” over its first four years.

Throughout the introduction and implementation of the CSP, there was concerted community and NGO engagement with improving refugee sponsorship programs in Australia. In 2019, Peter Shergold led the Review on Integration, Employment and Settlement Outcomes for Refugees and Humanitarian Entrants in Australia, which included discussion of the CSP. The Shergold Review found that the CSP was well intended but the program’s high costs, in particular the visa application fees, distorted the CSP’s objectives and resulted in it becoming a de facto family reunification stream program. Interviews we have conducted with APOs have confirmed that at least 90% of sponsors were families in Australia using the CSP to bring their family members in situations of immediate risk to safety. This took place in the absence of functional family reunion pathways in Australia.

In response to the Shergold Review, the Australian government undertook an internal review of the CSP, which resulted in a report delivered in March of 2021. The report found that there was “a strong cohort of Australians across the country who are ready and willing to support refugees to settle into their communities” but “there is no existing framework – within the CSP or via other avenues – for everyday Australians to connect with and help newly-arrived refugees”.

Community sponsorship and refugee resettlement in Australia were disrupted during the COVID-19 pandemic. On 19 March 2020, the Australian government suspended issuing visas to refugees and those entitled to complementary protection, including those coming through the CSP. Even those who had already received a permanent visa through the CSP could not enter Australia because of border restrictions and strict entry quotas.

Community Sponsorship after COVID-19

The Australian government’s internal review of the CSP and sustained advocacy by human rights and refugee protection organisations led to the introduction of a further pilot program in December 2021: the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP), which operates alongside the CSP. The CSP has been maintained, although the costs associated with sponsoring through the CSP have been significantly reduced.  

The CRISP involves the Government partnering with peak NGO, Community Refugee Sponsorship Australia (CRSA), to deliver the program. The CRISP aims to settle 1500 sponsored refugees over 4 years, once again from within Australia’s annual resettlement quota rather than in addition to it. However, the CRISP enables sponsorship of unnamed refugees and complementary protection recipients who are referred by UNHCR and who do not haveexisting links to Australia, which was not an aspect of either the CPP or CSP. Thus, unlike the CSP, the CRISP cannot be used as a mechanism for family reunification.

Where to Now for Community Sponsorship in Australia?

Both the CPP and CSP raise unique questions about citizen engagement in refugee resettlement generally, as well as the boundaries of what we call private or community sponsorship.  The programs failed to harness and build community trust by taking places away from Government funded quotas for refugee entrants, shifting non-sponsorship related costs onto sponsors and excluding many people who meet refugee and complementary protection definitions.

Broader questions about the effects of privatization and citizen participation in resettlement are brought to the fore in the context of the recent Australian programs, which explicitly exploit the urgent need for family reunion and durable solutions. The CRISP reflects a genuine attempt to remove costs and reintroduce community participation, even if it does not operate in addition to existing quotas. Australian practice in this area is still ‘under development’ and has been subject to significant twists and turns. However, the Australian experience is significant to both shaping the normative understanding of community sponsorship vis-à-vis refugee resettlement as such, and also in context of the introduction of sponsorship programs in other states.

Professor Susan Kneebone is a Professorial Fellow, and Senior Associate, Asian Law Centre, and Research Affiliate of the McMullin Statelessness Centre, Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne. Susan supervises PhD students on refugee law, statelessness and forced migration in South East and East Asia and has written widely on those issues.

Dr Anthea Vogl is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Law. She co-runs the Clinical Refugee Law Program at UTS is a national co-convenor of Academics for Refugees, a network advocating for refugee rights and justice in Australia

Dr Kate Ogg is an Associate Professor and Associate Dean at the Australian National University’s College of Law. Her recent monograph, Protection from Refuge: From Refugee Rights to Migration Management was published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.

Susan, Kate and Anthea were awarded an Australian Research Council grant to undertake the first comprehensive study of Australia’s refugee community sponsorship programs (2022-2025).

The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.