Australia's Private Refugee Sponsorship Program: Creating Complementary Pathways or Privatizing Humanitarianism?

Author:Hirsch, Asher


This article provides the first history and critique of Australia's private refugee sponsorship program, the Community Support Program (CSP). As more countries turn to community sponsorship of refugees as a means to fill the "resettlement gap," Australia's model provides a cautionary tale. The CSP, introduced in 2017, does not expand Australia's overall resettlement commitment but instead takes places from within the existing humanitarian resettlement program. The Australian program charges sponsors exorbitant application fees, while simultaneously prioritizing refugees who are "job ready," with English-language skills and ability to integrate quickly, undermining the principle of resettling the most vulnerable. As such, we argue that the CSP hijacks places from within Australia's humanitarian program and represents a market-driven outsourcing and privatization of Australia's refugee resettlement priorities and commitments.


Cet article offre la premiere histoire et critique du pro gramme de parrainage prive des refugies en Australie, le Community Support Program (CSP). Alors que de plus en plus de pays se tournent vers le parrainage communautair pour combler les besoins en matiere de reinstallation, le modele australien tient lieu de mise en garde. Le CSP, introduit en 2017, n'etend pas les engagements de l'Australie et matiere de reinstallation, mais accapare des places au seil du programme humanitaire de reinstallation deja existent. Le programme australien impose aux parrains des frais de demande exorbitants tout en donnant la priorite aux refugies qui sont prets a occuper un emploi, qui ont des competences linguistiques en anglais et qui sont capables de s'integrer rapidement, minant ainsi le principe de reinstallation des plus vulnerables. Nous soutenons que le CSP detourne des places du programme humanitaire australien et represente une sous-traitance axee sur le marche ains qu'une privatisation des priorites et engagements de l'Autralie en matiere de reinstallation.


At a time when the global gap between refugee resettlement needs and resettlement places made available by governments is widening, countries around the world are increasingly looking to community sponsorship to expand and supplement their refugee resettlement. In September 2016 a meeting of un General Assembly states resulted in the New York Declaration of Refugees and Migrants, wherein member states agreed to negotiate a Global Compact on Refugees in order to strengthen the international refugee regimes response to large refugee movements. The resulting final draft of the Global Compact on Refugees calls upon states "to establish private or community sponsorship programs that are additional to regular resettlement" in order to provide timely access to durable solutions for refugees. (1) Following from the New York Declaration, a number of states are experimenting with community sponsorship programs, following in the footsteps of Canada's long-running program, including the United Kingdom, Ireland, New Zealand, Argentin, and some in the European Union.

In the lead-up to the New York Declaration, Australia confirmed its intentions to join this list and implement a permanent community sponsorship program. Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that "in addition to our existing programs, Australia will ... create new pathways for refugees to resettle in Australia through the establishment of 1000 places under a Community Support Programme, where communities and businesses can sponsor applications and support new arrivals." (2)

This article provides the first detailed overview of Australia's historical and current approaches to community sponsorship. In particular, it addresses the current Community Support Program (CSP), which formally began in late 2017, and the Community Proposal Pilot (CPP), which began in 2013 and preceded the CSP. As well, it traces Australia's prior experimentation in this policy area, namely the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS), which ran for almost twenty years from 1979 to 1997. In doing so, we argue that potentials of private sponsorship cannot be assessed independently of the details and national context of specific sponsorship programs. The manner in which sponsorship programs are framed and promoted by nation states, as well as the design, are factors that determine the value of sponsorship programs, particularly when such programs are framed as "complementary" pathways to traditional government-led resettlement.

While the CSP provides a much-needed counterpoint to Australia's infamous Operation Sovereign Borders--a "military-led" border control program centred upon securitization and the absolute control of refugee movements (3) -there are problematic policies built into the program, which include a lack of additionality; (4) prohibitively high visa application charges and processing fees; discriminatory selection criteria; and lack of community engagement in the design and participation of the program. Read together, Australia's CSP is best understood as an exercise in the privatization of resettlement responsibilities and costs that ultimately reduces the Australian government's overall commitment to resettlement. The use of private funding to directly replace government-funded places, and the preference for "work-ready" refugees, which characterize the CSP, entail that the Australian program cannot be characterized as creating a complementary pathway to resettlement. Instead, we argue that in its current form it represents a market-driven outsourcing and privatization of the existing refugee program. This view is echoed in the government's own framing of the program, which it has promoted not only as "cost saving," but as a revenue-raising measure.

We argue that the Australian experience--in particular, the CSP--provides cause for pause and caution. While community sponsorship has considerable untapped potential in Australia, the parameters of community sponsorship schemes need to be carefully crafted and managed to ensure that governments do not use sponsorship to shift the cost of long-standing public programs for resettling refugees onto private actors, further entrench controlled migration as a precondition to offering protection to refugees, and shift resettlement focus away from the most vulnerable refugees-risks that are inherent within the current CSP framework.

In the first part of this article, we explain the history, design, and focus of the CRSS and the motivation for this program, which provides important background to contemporary private sponsorship in Australia. The following sections outline and critique the CPP and the CSP, with a focus on the political context of control and deterrence of refugee arrivals, into which both programs were introduced. Finally, we highlight the risks of "exporting" the Australian model to other jurisdictions and examine the sustained community--and sector-based efforts to promote reform and improvement of the CSP in Australia.

The Community Refugee Settlement Scheme

While there is a vast literature on refugee resettlement in Australia, (5) there is little mention of Australia's historical use of community sponsorship to support the resettlement of refugees and humanitarian entrants. While Australia may appear as a newcomer to community sponsorship programs, it has, in fact, a significant history with community sponsorship through the Community Refugee Settlement Scheme (CRSS) that ran from 1979 to 1997. The CRSS, which helped to settle and integrate over 30,000 refugees in Australia, was a critical part of Australia's response to the Indochinese refugee crisis and a key feature of Australia's resettlement policies in the 1980s and early 1990s. (6)

The program was introduced on 30 October 1979 by the minister for immigration, Michael MacKellar, following a recommendation of the Australian Refugee Advisory Council. (7) MacKellar had floated the idea of a community sponsorship program a year prior, as part of a reconsideration of Australia's strategic response to the Indochinese refugee crisis, in particular the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees from countries of first asylum. (8) A particular challenge facing the Australian government at the time was that resettled refugees were accommodated and processed in government-run hostels and migrant centres before being dispersed into the wider community. (9) Not only were these migrant centres and hostels costly to run, they also couldn't cope with large numbers of Vietnamese refugee arrivals whom the Australian government had agreed to resettle. MacKellar thus identified a "need to cope with the transition from hostels to the community." (10)

At its core, the CRSS was a mechanism to allow refugees to bypass government-run migrant centres and hostels and be moved directly into the Australian community, into the care of those members of the local community who had undertaken to provide assistance. The aims of the CRSS were to:

* give members of the community an opportunity to become directly involved in the settlement of refugees and contribute to their integration;

* provide an alternative means of settlement for refugees who have a capacity to integrate quickly into the Australian community;

* encourage greater awareness of the government's refugee resettlement program; and

* achieve a more geographically dispersed settlement of refugees through the Australian community. (11)

Initially the CRSS was available only to support Vietnamese refugees, but it was later expanded to cover Eastern European and Latin American refugees. (12) The CRSS was open to participation by established voluntary agencies (including religious organizations), organized groups of individuals, employers, and individuals as supporters. It was envisaged that the majority of offers of support would come from voluntary agencies, but offers from individuals who could demonstrate a...

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