Refugee advocates have slammed the Federal Government for slashing Australia’s humanitarian intake by 5,000 people a year in Tuesday night’s Budget.
The Government has introduced a new cap of 13,750 places a year, down from 18,750 — cutting the number of people allowed into the country for humanitarian reasons by more than a quarter.
Jana Favero, director of advocacy and campaigns at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), said the move was “a blow for the humane treatment of refugees”.
The ASRC had hoped the Budget would include support for asylum seekers in the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“To see that not only is there no extension of support, but actually a cutting of humanitarian intake, is devastating,” she said.
“It does seem very short-sighted, very senseless, and most of all cruel, because there’s no reason to do this at all.”
The budget papers suggest cuts to the humanitarian program will save almost $1 billion.
“Over four years from 2020-21, this measure will result in an overall reduction in expenditure of $958.3 million and revenue reduction of $47.0 million,” the budget papers read.
But the ASRC and the Refugee Council of Australia said the increase in offshore detention spending negates those savings.
The Department of Home Affairs spent $961 million in “irregular maritime arrivals offshore management” last financial year and has budgeted almost $1.19 billion for 2020-21.
Forward estimates then drop to around $300 million in later years.
The Department of Home Affairs has been approached for comment.
Cuts come when more are in need
The new cap returns Australia’s refugee intake to Abbott Government-era levels.
Paul Power, head of the Refugee Council of Australia, said the news was “shattering”.
“What really shocked us … was the fact that this is a permanent cut to the refugee and humanitarian program. This isn’t a government saying: ‘We need to slow the program down because of the unusual situation that we’re in’,” he said.
“This is actually the Government using the pandemic to make a permanent cut to the program.”
He said it was concerning to see the Government spending more money on “detention and punishment” for those who arrive by boat, especially when US President Donald Trump had substantially cut his country’s refugee resettlement scheme and when people were in dire need across Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Australia’s regime of offshore detention has been widely condemned by international human rights bodies, but the Government has said it is designed to deter people smugglers and prevent drownings at sea.
Mr Power said the move comes at a time when Syrian refugees in Beirut are facing “shocking circumstances” because of the recent explosion, compounding other crises in Lebanon.
“It’s really sad to see the Government turning in at a time when I don’t think the Australian community is actually feeling the same. … I think millions of Australians would feel compassion for the refugees, for instance, in Beirut.”
Calculating the human cost
In the budget papers, the Government said it will provide $12.7 million over two years to the Department of Home Affairs “to improve integration outcomes for humanitarian entrants through the extension of the existing Youth Transition Support and Youth Hub Programs”.
The Budget also says the Government will “allow flexibility in places between offshore and onshore categories in response to COVID-19 travel restrictions” and invest in improving settlement and employment outcomes.
ASRC’s Ms Favero pointed out Australia is a proud signatory of the Refugee Convention, and said numerous research papers show refugees, after settling in a new country, make a substantial economic and societal contribution.
“Not only are we losing out as a country, but each one of those places is an individual who will no longer be safe and be protected,” she said.
“The human cost is the greatest cost in all this.”