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Rebeka Selmeczki and Carmen Ghaly 

The COVID-19 pandemic led to a pause in the international resettlement of refugees, as announced by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in March. Although resettlement resumed in June, travel restrictions remain in place and resettlement numbers for the year remain extremely low.

UNHCR’s annual dialogue on refugee resettlement, the Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement (ATCR), which was held virtually this year, emphasised the need for resettlement to continue. The outlook for 2021 is increasingly dire, with more than one million refugees identified as being in priority need of resettlement. UNHCR is urging states to maintain their original resettlement quotas for 2021.

The ATCR, a community of global stakeholders that includes governments, NGOs and UNHCR, attuned its agenda to address the escalating issues faced by refugees as a result of the pandemic. Recognising a whole-of-society approach, as outlined in the Global Compact on Refugees, the ATCR saw collaboration across sectors and an international community working in solidarity as necessary to maintain, and if possible increase, resettlement numbers. It also explored the potential of complementary pathways, such as family reunification, private or community refugee sponsorship, humanitarian admission programmes, and education and labour mobility opportunities.

In the face of an overwhelmingly concerning global situation, resettlement remains an important durable solution for refugees, particularly for the most vulnerable. The temporary suspension, and now ongoing travel restrictions, are directly impacting refugees, who are experiencing the delays and family separation. 

Settlement Services International (SSI) – for whom we work – assists with the resettlement of refugees in Australia. It advocates locally and globally for the protection needs of refugees and people seeking asylum in Australia, and for other displaced people in vulnerable situations. For the past five years, SSI has been one of four Australian NGOs participating in the ATCR.

As the world responds to the effects of COVID-19, SSI is adapting its way of working to ensure the support of refugees continues in Australia. Like many essential services, SSI has been faced with the unprecedented challenge of how best to protect refugee communities from the pandemic without disrupting the delivery of vital services. We have found innovative ways to ensure that both public health and protection needs are not compromised. 

The impact of COVID-19 on resettlement in Australia

Since mid-March, SSI has supported more than 100 newly-arrived refugees to settle in their new home. It continues to support 5,000 refugees who arrived within the Australian Government’s Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP). Despite moving to an entirely remote work model, with physical offices closed, SSI has navigated uncertainty to continue to deliver essential services. 

SSI was initially dismayed that Australia’s 2020-21 Budget delivered stimulus and incentives to businesses and those on high incomes, while overlooking those most vulnerable in Australia and overseas.

Of particular concern were cuts to Australia’s humanitarian (refugee) intake and the drastic reduction of support for asylum seekers living in our communities. Early in the pandemic, SSI joined other NGOs in calling on the government to leave nobody behind, to “build back better” and to avoid mass unemployment and social unrest after the COVID-19 pandemic.

SSI was encouraged to hear that Australia’s humanitarian intake would be reviewed every year, allowing numbers to return to pre-pandemic levels as the global situation improves, and that the government would continue to focus on settlement and integration support for humanitarian entrants.

Linking the local to the global 

The Global Refugee Forum (GRF), hosted by UNHCR in Geneva in December 2019, received a total of 840 pledges by stakeholders across government, the private sector and civil society, and served as a collective effort to respond to the needs of refugees and the communities that host them. SSI submitted its pledges in the areas of Solutions and Jobs and Livelihoods. 

SSI views the backdrop of the pandemic as an opportunity to accelerate this action and radically change the way we respond to the challenges of global displacement, offering new, innovative solutions on how we treat refugees and people seeking asylum in our care. By continually asking, ‘What sort of society do we want to be?’, Australia could become a land of opportunity, underpinned by social inclusion, where everyone achieves their potential. 

There is a strong sense of solidarity across the whole of society – NGOs, private and philanthropy sectors, and UNHCR – to action pledges that were made and to advance strategies. That includes the Three-Year Strategy on Resettlement and Complementary Pathways, which SSI is committed to supporting by working towards advancing complementary pathways in Australia, such as community sponsorship, and by pledging at the GRF to support new resettlement countries.

The findings of UNHCR’s Projected Global Resettlement Needs report reveals that only 4.5 per cent of global resettlement needs were met in 2019. The report forecasts that 1.5 million refugees will require resettlement in 2021. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 situation, 2020 will be a record low for refugee resettlement, and the targets set within the Three-Year Strategy will not be met. 

However, during the pandemic, as resettlement providers, we have been able to demonstrate that refugees can continue to be resettled safely with appropriate measures put in place, such as pre-departure testing and quarantine in their country of asylum prior to departure. 

Since the need for resettlement has never been greater, we are advocating for a return to pre-pandemic resettlement quotas to ensure the continuity of the Australian Government’s Humanitarian Settlement Program, beginning with the resettlement of individuals and families that have been granted visas to arrive but are not yet permitted to travel due to border closures. More work needs to be done to ensure that resettlement programs restart as soon as possible.

Australia’s innovative response to the integration of migrant and refugee communities 

The COVID-19 landscape has served as a launch pad to innovate and revise past practices, offering flexible solutions that might become permanent in the long run. Primarily, we see the benefits of efficient technology in improving areas such as digital literacy among refugees. 

On the cusp of the pandemic outbreak in Australia, and before lockdowns were implemented, SSI began developing a suite of resources launched as a COVID-19 Resource Hub to help culturally and linguistically diverse individuals and communities navigate the rapidly evolving climate. 

The Hub includes resources translated into 19 different languages, covering a wide array of relevant and timely information and advice, including links to government and medical advice, refugee and disability supports and resources, and a curated daily media feed linking to the SBS Coronavirus Multilingual Portal and Sydney Morning Herald’s Coronavirus Pandemic Breaking News page

SSI has continued to communicate regularly with the community through a range of virtual channels as we adapt to the changing situation. It is critical that we take care of ourselves, physically and mentally, and stay connected via virtual means.

SSI’s employment program referred four refugee participants to work on a COVID-19 response project with architect and disaster and emergency response specialist Professor Robert Barnstone and P&G (Purpose and Growth) director Douglas Abdiel. P&G is an Australian not-for-profit manufacturing firm that is partnering with other organisations to rapidly deploy a range of health facilities in conjunction with disaster relief teams responding to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The project began in Marrickville on 17 April 2020, constructing Australia’s first purpose-built coronavirus testing centre for use by governments here and around the world. Today, the testing centre is in operation at Macquarie Park, Sydney, and testing centre designs will be available to organisations internationally.

Refugees are eager to contribute to their new homeland, and increased community testing will be crucial to Australia’s path out of COVID-19 restrictions by ensuring infections can continue to be quickly identified and contained. 

The impact of the pandemic has seen many industries approach the crisis more creatively, and innovation during COVID-19 is equally essential for organisations supporting refugees, such as SSI. 

Like other civil society organisations, SSI has worked tirelessly throughout 2020 in finding solutions like the COVID-19 Resource Hub that are community-led and -informed, to fill an increasingly widening gap.

Collectively, we can continue supporting protection needs through continued advocacy for resettlement and solutions, locally and globally.

 

Carmen Ghaly is the International Protection Senior Officer at Settlement Services International. Carmen is an experienced social worker in forced migration, international development and project management having worked in West Africa, the Middle East and Australia. Carmen is the focal point at SSI for the Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) and the Global Refugee Forum, coordinating SSI’s engagement in international advocacy and policy. She is also leading SSI’s engagement in advocating for a Community Refugee Sponsorship program in Australia.
Rebeka Selmeczki is the Senior Communications Officer at Settlement Services International. Rebeka has experience working in intergovernmental organisations (UNHCR), not-for-profits, think tanks and tech startups. Rebeka's work at SSI focuses on raising awareness in the wider public about the positive contributions refugees bring to Australia. She is passionate about social innovation for capacity building in international development. As someone who arrived in Australia as a refugee minor, the refugee cause is close to heart. 

 

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The Kaldor Centre plays a vital role in developing legal, sustainable and humane solutions for displaced people around the world.