Can I thank my colleague and the member for Gellibrand Tim Watts. I am also proud to be in the company tonight of both the member for Macmillan and my neighbour the member for Wills. I thank them for bringing forward this important motion in support of community sponsorship for refugees.

The former Labor government initiated a pilot community sponsorship program for 500 places in 2012 and under the program individuals, businesses and community organisations were able to sponsor applicants within the Australian refugee and humanitarian program. These sponsors covered the cost of visa requirements and the provision of practical resettlement assistance. By involving community organisations from the applicant stage, and particularly in the practical resettlement stage, we were able to leverage the substantial community capacity that exists within Australia.

The program was not without its flaws, in particular around its ad hoc nature and the heavy reliance on approved proposing organisations to work with families and sponsors to facilitate the process. However, the program was extremely popular with the response to its introduction vastly exceeding available places. In addition, a 2015 department of immigration review of the pilot was largely positive, finding the program could provide an additional resettlement pathway. The initial evidence showed that there were higher and faster grant rates for humanitarian visas under this program.

I am pleased that the Turnbull government committed to making this program permanent during President Obama’s refugee summit in New York in September of last year. They also committed to increased the intake to 1,000. While in and of themselves these are commendable actions, I am disappointed and concerned that the increase, and the commitment itself, exists only within the current resettlement quota.

By operating this program within the existing quota, all of us miss a key opportunity to make a difference. I believe we undermine the very purpose of community sponsorship, which is to expand our humanitarian intake and to do so without burdening taxpayers. Instead, by including any community sponsorship program in the existing quota, the Turnbull government’s current program is pushing the cost and the responsibility for resettling refugees onto the private sector. That is not good enough, because ultimately that is about cost shifting and not compassion.

I believe we can and should do better by making community sponsorship an expanded part of Australia’s humanitarian policy package and by making it an addition to, rather than including it within, our existing humanitarian intake. Canada provides a real example of the positive role community sponsorship can play, with over a quarter of a million refugees processed through a similar program. Importantly, Canada’s program supplements the government intake scheme.

There are currently an estimated 65 million displaced people globally, with the UNHCR estimating that more than 1.1 million are in need of permanent resettlement. Australia can and should do more to provide leadership in our region and to make sure we bring more refugees to Australia safely by increasing our contribution to the UNHCR, placing Australia within the top five global contributors; by restoring the 1951 Refugee Convention to the Migration Act, reversing the Abbott government’s attempts to undermine international law; by building a regional humanitarian framework in our region through real leadership, including advocating for the rights of refugees in transit countries; by protecting the interests of children by introducing an independent children’s advocate; and by creating a safe, humane environment in immigration processing through faster processing, independent oversight, transparency and third-party resettlement.

I am proud that Labor has committed to increasing our annual humanitarian intake to 27,000, almost doubling the current number reached under this government of only 13,750.

Community sponsorship can offer an alternative pathway for resettlement. It is another way for more refugees to come to Australia, to come safety and to come in a way that does not overly burden the Australian taxpayer.

By way of example, in my own community, I have encountered many Middle Eastern Christian communities, in particular, who are deeply anxious about the fate of relatives and coreligionists in Syria and Iraq. The Melkite congregation in Fairfield, led by Father Samir, and the congregation of Saint George’s orthodox cathedral in Fairfield, led by Reverend Father George Nassir and the secretary George Ibrahim, are already doing all they can to bring refugees to Australia to resettle them. For instance, in the case of the cathedral, there are families living there and getting support from that community. Those communities, those people and their passion can be put to greater use, and this can be done in a way that makes a positive contribution.

I commend this motion. I commend the member for Gellibrand for bringing it forward. I hope to see a sponsorship program that is additional to our intake and that forms an important part of Australia’s humanitarian framework.

22 MAY 2016.

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