Between 2015 and 2017, Australia provided 12,000 resettlement places for refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq. This special humanitarian intake was an ad hoc, one-off response to international and domestic pressure on the Australian government and reflects similar pledges made by other States to admit Syrian refugees. While Australia’s Syria–Iraq special intake provided invaluable protection for refugees fleeing one of the world’s major humanitarian crises, it raises a number of questions regarding fairness, transparency and efficiency in its implementation.
In the context of growing numbers of displaced people worldwide, the Syrian crisis will not be the last situation involving widespread displacement and requiring international cooperation to ensure the protection of refugees. Indeed, the current predicament of large numbers of refugees in places such as Kenya, Bangladesh and the Central Mediterranean also requires stronger responses and support from the international community.
This Policy Brief critically analyses special humanitarian intakes from an international and comparative perspective. It examines the normative frameworks applicable to special humanitarian intakes, both in Australia and elsewhere, including international refugee and human rights law, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) global resettlement program, and Australian domestic law. It considers how the Syria–Iraq special intake compares to other similar, one-off arrangements for the relocation and/or resettlement of refugees, such as the Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indo-Chinese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, the humanitarian evacuation of Kosovar refugees in 1999, and the use of individual emergency and urgent resettlement quotas by States such as Sweden and Canada.
Key findings and recommendations
This Policy Brief recommends that future special humanitarian intakes ought to be guided by overarching principles of refugee protection as follows:
1. The decision to implement a special humanitarian intake should be based on principles of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing, such that a special humanitarian intake should be offered in situations where the scale of displacement from a large-scale emergency exceeds the capacity of the State/s of first asylum to cope and thereby risks negatively affecting the protection space in that State.
2. Once a decision has been taken to implement a special humanitarian intake, selection of individuals for resettlement from within the target population should focus on identifying refugees with the greatest protection needs.
Based on these overarching principles, the Policy Brief makes a number of specific recommendations for future special humanitarian intakes. These are:
- Special humanitarian intakes should provide a pathway to permanent, durable solutions for the refugees concerned;
- Special humanitarian intakes must be undertaken in consultation and cooperation with UNHCR;
- Decisions to implement special humanitarian intakes should be based on principles of international solidarity and responsibility-sharing;
- Selection of refugees for resettlement within a special humanitarian intake should focus on identifying refugees with the greatest protection needs;
- Planning for special humanitarian intakes – for example, via a designated annual quota – should be considered as a means of ensuring more efficient processing and resource allocation;
- Complementary admission pathways, such as for students, skilled workers or family reunion, should be implemented separately to special humanitarian intakes;
- Where possible, expedited resettlement processing procedures, such as have been employed elsewhere, should be used to increase the speed and efficiency of processing within special humanitarian intakes; and
- Decisions regarding special humanitarian intakes must be made in a principled and transparent manner, making clear the basis for the decision to undertake a special humanitarian intake and the way in which individual refugees are selected for resettlement within it.