Detention facilities on Christmas Island will be closed by 1 July 2019, returning to ‘contingency setting’ just months after the remote centre was re-opened by the Australian government following passage of the so-called ‘Medevac’ legislation.
According to yesterday’s federal budget, the Morrison government will seek to repeal the Home Affairs Legislation Amendment (Miscellaneous Measures) Act 2019 and return any asylum seekers held at the facilities to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea or Nauru. No people are known to have been transferred to Christmas Island for treatment under the Medevac process since the legislation passed on 1 March.
The 2019-2020 federal budget also contains cuts and changes to services for asylum seekers in Australia, and provides continued funding for Operation Sovereign Borders.
Refugees in Australia
There is a sharp decrease in provision for asylum seeker support within the Human Services portfolio, to $52.6 million down from $139.8 million two years ago. The Refugee Council of Australia has said this cut will be applied to the Status Resolution Support Service (SRSS) and ‘will force people further into destitution’. The SRSS program supports people who are waiting on the outcome of their protection claim.
In a measure to streamline employment service arrangements, newly arrived refugees receiving income support will have one year – rather than six months – before they are required to engage with an employment-seeking service. The government says this measure, under the Human Services and the Jobs and Small Business portfolios, will allow new arrivals to focus on language training and settlement for a longer period. The budget papers state that this will save $77.9 million over four years. The Refugee Council said that ‘it is disappointing that this money will not be put into a specialized employment service for refugees’.
The budget provides the Department of Home Affairs funds of $27.2 million over four years for a ‘Social Cohesion Package’ that aims to ‘foster belonging and break down barriers to social and economic participation for Australian immigrants, and create stronger communities’. This includes digital engagement initiatives designed to counter online extremism, grant schemes for community language schools and community organisations, and funding for a Hellenic Chair in Global Diasporas at the School of Culture and Communications at the University of Melbourne.
Onshore detention and border enforcement
Under the Home Affairs portfolio the budget provides over $1 billion per year for the next four years for Onshore Compliance and Detention. According to the budget papers, this includes the costs of resolving the status of so-called ‘legacy caseload’ of asylum seekers who arrived by boat and are waiting determination of their claims for protection. It also includes the costs of ‘reintegration assistance packages’ for non-citizens who choose to return to their countries of origin.
Offshore processing and Operation Sovereign Borders
Under the Home Affairs portfolio the budget provides for $526 million towards offshore processing in 2019-2020, a significant reduction from estimated final costs for this financial year 2018-2019 of $1.158 billion. The projected costs for 2020 through 2023 are just over $400 million per year.
In 2019-2020 the Australian government will provide $39.5 million towards the Regional Cooperation Arrangement, supporting Indonesian efforts to manage people seeking asylum within that country.
The budget papers note that the government will provide $3.2 million to increase the Australian Federal Police presence on Christmas Island and another $3 million to ‘reinforce’ Operation Sovereign Borders ‘offshore strategic communications campaign’.
The budget papers note that in the current financial year 2018-2019 the government will provide ‘for the establishment of an Independent Health Advice Panel to monitor, assess and report on the physical and mental health of transitory persons who are in regional processing countries and the standard of health services provided to them’, at a cost of $8 million. As the Refugee Council of Australia has noted, no funding has been allocated for this panel in the next financial year.
Aid to Nauru and Papua New Guinea
The budget provides for $25.8 million in Overseas Development Aid to Nauru in 2019-2020, just under the $26.7 million allocated under the 2018-2019 budget.
The Australia government will give $607.5 million in Overseas Development Aid to Papua New Guinea in 2019-2020, an increase on the $578m provided in 2018-2019.
The government will decrease the planning level for the Migration Program, down from 190,000 places to 160,000 places for four years. According to the Refugee Council of Australia, these reductions will not impact the separate Refugee and Humanitarian Program and this will remain at 2018-2019 levels of 18,750 places each year.
Dr Claire Higgins is a Senior Research Associate at the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law.
Further information about the Medevac legislation can be found in the Kaldor Centre factsheet: The Medevac law: medical transfers from offshore processing to Australia.