A Senate inquiry, which started in February, is examining the processing of family and partner reunion visas over concerns the system is being plagued by lengthy waiting times and exorbitant costs.
In a submission to this enquiry, The UNHCR slammed Australia and specifically pointed to the disproportionate impact of these challenges on refugees trying to bring family into Australia.
The UNHCR urged Australia to remove ‘discriminatory’ policies which restrict refugees’ access to family reunification processes, describing them as ‘punitive’, ‘cruel’, and contrary to Australia’s obligations under international law. The comments were made in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into Australia’s family and partner reunion visa system. UNHCR raised concerns about obstacles preventing refugees on permanent visas from accessing family reunification mechanisms for which they are eligible, and the denial of family reunification to refugees not eligible for the program.
“UNHCR strongly urges Australia to urgently remove all discriminatory restrictions imposed on refugees accessing family reunification mechanisms,” the submission says.
“These policies are punitive, cruel and at variance with Australia’s obligations under international law.”
The UNHCR recognises that Australia does have processes to facilitate family reunification for those in its refugee program - but notes these individuals also face roadblocks to securing reunions.
It stresses that Australia should expand eligibility for family reunification streams to all refugees and “strengthen such mechanisms” to enable the program to better support displaced families. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said: "The Australian Government recognises the importance of family reunion for refugees and humanitarian entrants."
"Permanent humanitarian visa holders (including Permanent Protection visa holders) may propose family members for resettlement in Australia through the offshore Humanitarian Program and the Family Program."
In one recommendation, the UN body conveys its concern with Australia’s approach - stating that legal requirements should not present “insurmountable obstacles” for refugees trying to reunite with family.
“This involves limitations imposed as a result of the manner of arrival, fees imposed, or status granted,” the UNHCR's submission says.
“Other restrictions include the time frame within which applications may be submitted, discriminatory processing priorities, documentation, income, and health requirements that may be imposed.”
Who is, and who isn't, eligible for family reunification visas?
Refugees on permanent visas are eligible to sponsor family members through the family stream of Australia's migration system.
But the UNHCR warns that even these individuals continue to face obstacles blocking them from reuniting with family members.
This includes high costs, restrictive eligibility criteria and “onerous" documentation requirements.
The UNHCR also raises concerns for other refugees who aren’t eligible for the program.
“UNHCR has first-hand knowledge of countless families denied reunification in the most compelling of circumstances, such as the case of a refugee father on a temporary visa who was unable to sponsor his vulnerable minor children living in a third country to join him in Australia when their mother died in tragic circumstances,” the submission says.
Refugees arriving in Australia on or after 13 August 2012 without a valid visa are also not eligible to sponsor any family member under Australia’s Humanitarian Program, according to UNHCR.
Such refugees - who arrived in Australia via boat before the Coalition implemented Operation Sovereign Borders in late 2013 - are sometimes referred to as the "legacy caseload" of Australian boat arrivals.
As at March 2021, 31,225 people within this group had submitted a protection visa application - with 26,830 of these finalised, according to the Department of Home Affairs.
More than 18,000 applications for temporary protection among the legacy caseload have been granted, according to government data.
The UNHCR says refugees who arrived before 13 August 2012 can submit family reunion applications - but warns these are given the “lowest priority” for processing unless they are able to prove “compelling reasons” otherwise.
A spokesperson for the Department of Home Affairs said the government has: "measures in place to discourage people from risking their lives on a dangerous boat journey.
"These include giving a lower priority ... to process Family visa applications where the applicant’s sponsor is a person who entered Australia as an Illegal Maritime Arrival (IMA) and is a permanent resident."
In a separate submission to the inquiry, the Department adds that: “refugees granted temporary Protection visas are not eligible to sponsor family members to migrate to Australia.”
“However, Safe Haven Enterprise Visa (SHEV) holders who become eligible to apply for, and are granted, a ‘prescribed’ permanent visa will become eligible to sponsor their family members.
The UNHCR also warns that the primary avenue through which refugees can reunite with family members is persistently being overburdened with applications.
It says demand for the so-called Special Humanitarian Program pathway has “far exceeded” the number of visas available each year.
For example, in the 2019-20 fiscal year, there were 40,000 visa applications lodged under the SHP and around 4,600 visas granted.
The UNHCR also takes aim at the impact of Australia’s offshore processing regimes in Papua New Guinea and Nauru - and on the separation of families that have faced persecution.
“This has resulted in situations where immediate family members are separated indefinitely between Australia and Nauru or Papua New Guinea and other third countries such as the United States,” the submission says.
In the 2020–21 financial year, the government increased the number of family stream visa places to 77,300, which would account for almost half of the migration program.
More information: Refugee week: five steps the Government should take