Refugees and people seeking asylum look set to lose out from Tuesday night’s budget. Five thousand places will be cut from the Humanitarian Program, and the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program will be brought to roughly one-seventh its 2017-18 levels. Offshore processing will receive an immediate 23% increase to $1.19 billion — not including $55.6 million to reactive an immigration detention facility at North West Point on Christmas Island — before, curiously falling to just $307.5 million in 2021-22.
Humanitarian program and financial support
Following a ceiling of 18,750 places in Budget 2019-20, the Morrison government will set a ceiling on the Humanitarian Program of 13,750 places in a move that, over four years from from 2020-21, will result in an overall reduction in expenditure of $958.3 million and revenue reduction of $47.0 million.
According to the Refugee Council’s yearly immigration index, the cut in total placements follows multiple changes to the ceiling since the Coalition took office in 2013, when the Abbott government slashed the program from 20,000 t0 13,750; in order to win Senate support to reintroduce temporary protection visas for refugees who arrive by boat, the government agreed to a staged but delayed increase that brought the cap back to 16,250 in 2017-18 and 18,750 in 2018-19.
That annual total was achieved just once before COVID-19 created a shortfall of more than 5,000 places in 2019-20, an annual fall that the government apparently intends to maintain going forward.
From 2020-21, the government will “allow flexibility” in places between offshore and onshore categories in response to COVID-19 travel restrictions, a decision the Refugee Council notes could help reduce the backlog of backlog of permanent protection visa grants but consequently result in a further reductions in overseas arrivals.
The group also notes that the financial support under the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) program has been progressively slashed over the past four budgets, from $139.8 million in 2017-18 to $93.4 million in 2018-19 to $39.5 million in 2019-20 — an allocated $52.6 million was underspent by 25%, allegedly by “refusing support services to the majority of people seeking asylum regardless of need” — and now, to just $19.6 million in 2020-21. For more on the impact of these cuts, see the ASRC’s 2019 report ‘Cutting the safety net‘.
The budget further allocates $12.7 million over two years from 2020-21 for Home Affairs to improve integration outcomes through the extension of the existing Youth Transition Support and Youth Hub Programs; notably, since the 2019-20 Budget, Home Affairs has taken on responsibility for both migrant adult education from the Education portfolio and settlement services for refugees and humanitarian migrants from Social Services.
Announcing the new ceiling cap, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge added that:
“The Government will continue to invest to improve settlement and employment outcomes for humanitarian entrants, including through previously announced reforms to the Adult Migrant English Program (AMEP), and developing a reform program for settlement services and the Community Sponsorship Program.
“The Government will also offer Visa Application Charge (VAC) refunds, waivers or visa extensions to visa holders who have been unable to travel to Australia due to COVID-19. This includes waiving the VAC for Working Holiday Makers and Visitors to boost tourism once the borders re-open.”
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Does the budget put offshore processing on stand-by from 2021-22?
Curiously, the 2020-21 Home Affairs Portfolio Budget Statements increase funding for offshore detention from $961.7 million in 2019-20 to $1.19 billion in 2020-21, before drastically slashing this funding to $307.5 million in 2021-22, $302.2 million in 2022-23 and $296.1 million in 2023-24.
As the Refugee Council records, the budget follows a four-year period to June 2020 where Home Affairs spent $4.684 billion on offshore processing and actual expenditure exceeded budgeted funding by $1.804 billion:
- 2016-17: although the government allocated $880.5 million, its budget papers a year later showed actual expenditure was $202.4 million (23%) higher at $1.083 billion
- 2017-18: with $713.6 million budgeted but $1.482 billion spent, the budget blowout came in at 108%
- 2018-19: a $759.9 million budget was overspent by $397.7 million (52%)
- 2019-20: a budget of $525.6 million blew out by 83% to $961.7 million
Notably, offshore detention has seen a recent exodus of detained refugees and people seeking asylum due to medevac and third-party arrangements; while 4,183 people have been detained offshore since 2012, Home Affairs’ August 31, 2020 update puts just 180 people on Nauru and 170 in Papua New Guinea.
While there is as yet no official explanation for the funding dip — it could be down to anything, from low forecasting to unexplained budget savings — one possible explanation for slashing annual offshore spending by around $1 billion to $300 million is that the government expects to relocate the final 350 detainees sometime before mid-2022 and then keep the centres operating on stand-by.
It could also explain Jacqui Lambie’s crucial vote to repeal medevac in December 2019 after being informed of plans that she, visibly emotionally, claimed she could not discuss publicly “due to national security concerns.”
Christmas Island and regional co-operation with Indonesia
Following a controversial period of reopening parts of Christmas Island’s detention centres as a “knee-jerk” response to medevac, an ongoing home to the Bileola family of four, and ongoing facility for migrants and refugees facing deportation throughout the pandemic, the Morrison government has budgeted $55.6 million in 2020-21 to reactivate the immigration detention facility at North West Point in anticipation of up to 250 people.
Deploying some noticeably unsettling language, the budget specifies that the centre will “accommodate unlawful non-citizens including those released from prisons, but unable to be deported due to COVID-19 international border restrictions.” No funding is currently listed beyond 2021-22, suggesting that the government may only intend for the new cohort — who Dutton and Tudge describe as “high-risk detainees, including those who have been convicted for crimes involving assault, sexual offences, drugs and other violent offences” — to act as a stop-gap until international travel resumes and/or the risk of COVID-19 in onshore centres subsides.
Finally, the budget allocates $41.4 million in 2020-21 to continue funding for the Regional Cooperation Arrangement in Indonesia, a 200o-era program that includes funding for the International Organization for Migration to prevent the arrival of people seeking asylum by boat to Australia. While not specified in the budget, the IOM also supports refugees in Indonesia.
Like the Christmas Island plan, this funding is not repeated beyond 2020-21; however, it does form part of a larger, $104.9 million regional cooperation package aimed at enhancing immigration intelligence, anti-people smuggling initiatives and border management capabilities.