How Labor roped Timor into asylum seeker vote-grabbing
On Monday Chris Bowen, Australia’s Minister for Immigration, flew out to East Timor, Indonesia and Malaysia to push for the development of a so-called ‘regional framework’ for addressing refugee issues, and more specifically to progress the idea of a regional processing centre for asylum seekers in East Timor.
The day before he left, Minister Bowen told Laurie Oakes that the trip was about more than just regional processing centre and that he is working towards the development of “an entire regional framework” to deal with the refugee issue.
In the same interview, he also made the point that “it makes sense for all of us, all of our regional neighbours to work together in reaching a solution to what is essentially an international and regional problem.”
The Minister was correct in his assertion that a true regional framework is the only way forward if a meaningful regional initiative is to emerge. But if this sentiment is sincere, the government has used the wrong starting point. No discussion about a meaningful regional approach should begin as this one did, with an announcement about a processing centre in East Timor, delivered in highly charged pre-election political environment.
If politicians are serious about a real, constructive, regional approach to these issues, the first concrete step must be the development of a regional agreement on the treatment of refugees. Unlike Africa and Latin America, the Asia Pacific does not have such a framework. It is impossible to foresee effective regional cooperation on these issues in the absence of an agreement that sets out a common understanding and approach, and that sets minimum standards for the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.
We have already tried – and subsequently dismantled – a system that consisted of towing distressed people who arrived in Australia by boat to an Australian-funded detention centre housed on the territory of one of our small neighbours. It was called the Pacific Solution, and going back to that is not the answer.
The government’s current proposal for a regional processing centre raises more questions than answers, particularly in the absence of any detail as to what is meant by Minister Bowen when he speaks of “an entire regional framework”. For example, who would run such a processing centre? How would it be funded? What role would UNHCR play? Which asylum seekers would be sent there – only those who try to get to Australia by boat, or also those already in places such as Indonesia and Malaysia? What about people officially recognised as refugees by UNHCR? Would asylum seekers who get to Australia by plane also be taken to the processing centre?
How would asylum seekers be treated when they arrive at the processing centre? Would they be detained? Who would ensure their treatment meets international standards? Would they have access to counsellors? Legal advice? Other support services? Who would determine whether they are refugees? What sort of resettlement places would be available? How quickly would people be resettled? And the list goes on….
Without answers to these and many other questions, it is near impossible to predict what this so-called ‘regional solution’ might look like in practice, or how effective it would be.
Realistically, the only way of preventing asylum seekers and refugees from attempting dangerous boat journeys in search of safety is to provide them with viable alternatives. This requires increasing the capacity and willingness of countries across the Asia Pacific to protect refugees, and ensuring that refugees have access to durable solutions in the countries to which they first flee.
The UNHCR recognises three such solutions for refugees – voluntary repatriation, local integration and resettlement to a third country. For the majority of asylum seekers currently in the Asia Pacific, war and internal strife mean that repatriation is simply not an option. Australia is one of the only countries in our region where the other two durable solutions - local integration and resettlement - are a realistic possibility. This makes Australia one of the only places in the Asia Pacific that offers refugees the chance rebuild their lives safely and with dignity. These solutions must also be provided by other countries in our region if a real regional solution is to be achieved.
While they would be welcomed, regional resettlement initiatives and efforts to strengthen protection in countries to which people first flee can never serve as a substitute for, or grounds to discredit, spontaneous requests for asylum. Nor can these initiatives be used to take people where responsibility, enforceability and accountability for refugee protection are weak and unclear.
Any proposal which involves Australia participating in involuntary transfers of asylum seekers to other countries for processing, once they have reached Australia, is inherently unlawful. Such a practice contravenes the intent and purpose of the right to seek asylum set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the protection regime established by the Refugee Convention.
Anyone who remembers the dark days of the Pacific Solution – of genuine refugees being indefinitely detained, of hunger strikes, of refugees sewing their lips together - knows that this type of approach was no regional solution. It was an affront to human dignity.
Nobody wants to see desperate asylum seekers endangering their lives by getting on unseaworthy boats. But if we are serious about stopping this practice, we need to get equally serious about engaging in a genuine and constructive conversation about how we can ensure that refugees fleeing persecution and violence can get the protection they need.
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