It’s time to rock the boat on offshore processing
Six months ago today, the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers recommended a return to offshore processing on Nauru, predicting it would act as a “circuit breaker” to stem the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.
In the first six months that followed, more asylum seekers – 10,595 – arrived by boat than in any other six month period in Australian history.
Tragically, deaths at sea have continued, with more lives lost off the coast of Indonesia. Today, the core intention of the Panel’s work – to prevent loss of life at sea – remains unresolved and the need to improve protection for asylum seekers and refugees in our region and beyond still requires urgent attention.
If we are serious about finding ways of reducing the risks associated with boat journeys to Australia, we need to address the issues at the heart of the movement of refugees in our region.
Unilateral actions from Australia alone will not resolve the perceived problem nor will international efforts which focus exclusively or overwhelmingly on deterrence, interception and detention.
Endless political focus on “border protection” cannot of itself resolve issues which have such deep humanitarian dimensions. Many of the people seeking to cross borders in any way they can have serious claims for protection from persecution.
Of the asylum cases finalised by the Australian Government among boat arrivals over the four years to 30 June 2012, 93 per cent of the applicants were found to be in need of refugee protection (more than double the recognition rate for asylum seekers who arrive by plane with visas). Refugee status determinations conducted by the United Nations in many Asian countries also have high recognition rates.
There are many obstacles to refugees being adequately protected in various parts of Asia, the small number of Refugee Convention signatories in the region being just one of many.
However, it is in no country’s interest to do nothing while this ongoing humanitarian crisis of people crossing borders in fear continues.
Three decades ago, Australia was heavily involved in international efforts to respond to a far larger humanitarian crisis caused by the mass movement of refugees from Indochina.
At the moment, no country is more focused on the movement of refugees in the Asia-Pacific region than ours is. If we want to see positive regional leadership aimed at resolving the issues we see, then clearly Australia needs to exercise whatever positive leadership it can.
While the regional picture is bleak, it is not entirely so. We have seen some small steps forward in the region worthy of note.
In Thailand, NGOs have been able to work with government agencies to release refugees and asylum seekers from detention.
In December, Malaysia agreed to accept 40 Rohingya asylum seekers from Burma who were stranded on the boat that rescued them, after being rejected by Singapore.
India has opened the way to give registered refugees access to long-term stay visas and the right to work in the private sector.
The Philippines and South Korea have passed domestic refugee legislation and NGO representatives in other countries are developing draft legislation to help promote discussion and dialogue.
As we have seen in the past, countries in the region can be encouraged to take further steps, particularly if they are being supported internationally with practical assistance, aid and offers of resettlement.
Any regional dialogue on refugee needs should look at incremental steps, starting with:
• Removing barriers to refugee determination processes – Hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in the region are denied access to either UNHCR or domestic asylum systems, including many on the Thai-Burma border and in Bangladesh.
• Supporting non-government organisations – Host governments should be encouraged to allow organisations to provide emergency assistance, health care, education and legal help.
• Granting legal permission to stay – Promoting legal recognition of asylum seekers and refugees in countries across the region will allow people to remain in the country while their asylum process progresses.
• Developing alternatives to detention – Freedom from arrest and detention is crucial to building a sense of safety and security for a refugee living in an unfamiliar country.
• Granting the right to work – Having legal permission to work is fundamental for survival and living in fear.
• Access to health and education – Countries could be encouraged to provide access to government services such as education and health care to reduce pressure on UNHCR and NGOs who fill gaps in service delivery.
• Access to durable solutions – As the process builds, host states, UNHCR and others could work together to assist refugees in finding voluntary repatriation, integration into the host country or resettlement.
As these measures show signs of success, it will become more possible to engage nations in serious discussions about developing national asylum legislation (like The Philippines and South Korea have done) and about signing the Refugee Convention.
In our own national interest, Australia needs to move beyond the negative leadership it has shown by deflecting its international obligations to Nauru and Papua New Guinea with its punitive offshore processing of asylum claims.
Australia must model the best-practice asylum policies it would like to see replicated in the region and begin some serious regional discussions about how to protect the most vulnerable. This is the circuit breaker we need.
Comments on this post close at 8pm AEDST
Paul Power has been Chief Executive Officer of the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the national umbrella body for 150 agencies working with refugees and asylum seekers, since 2006. Paul leads the organisation’s policy development and public education on refugee issues and its advocacy with the Australian Government, international networks and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Prior to joining RCOA, Paul worked in the NGO sector as a media officer, trainer, researcher and manager, after a 12-year career in the newspaper industry as a journalist and editor. Through his NGO work, Paul has been involved with projects in international aid, community development, mental health support, volunteer training, social research and advocacy.
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