Asylum policies: How we got into this mess and how we can do better
The Way Forward - a safer and more humane plan
While both Coalition and Labor Governments have pursued regional arrangements in some form, these have largely been conducted as unilateral exercises with Australia seeking to fully exert its own interests. This has led to the current situation where single agreements have been reached with specific countries rather than through a more comprehensive multi country agreement. Resettlement through the arrangements in place has been uncertain and extremely slow, often carried out against the local community's wishes.
Longer term, comprehensive and sustainable approaches
The Asia Pacific region offers very little protection for people seeking safety. Few countries have signed the Refugee Convention or have domestic laws in place that provide legal protection. People seeking asylum living in these countries suffer violent abuse, exploitation and poverty with little access to health, education and other basic services. Under these conditions it is not surprising that journeys are taken by sea in search of safety. Leading non-government organisations such as The Refugee Council of Australia(66), the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre(67) and Amnesty International(68) have all called for comprehensive, sustainable regional approaches that address the reasons why people make dangerous onwards journeys in the first place.
The Regional Cooperation Framework agreed to by the Bali Process in 2011 could provide a vehicle for enhanced regional cooperation.(69) It provides a framework for ‘interested Bali Process members to establish practical arrangements aimed at ensuring consistent processing of asylum claims, durable solutions for refugees, the sustainable return of those found not to be owed protection and targeting people smuggling enterprises’.(70) While both Labor and the Coalition support the Bali Process, and Australia took a lead in its establishment, there has been little progress to date in implementing its objectives. It would need considerable investment from all signatories to develop the framework into a system which supported enhanced regional processing with the protection safeguards necessary to assure the safety and wellbeing of people seeking asylum.
Labor's current policy specifically refers to the Regional Cooperation framework and commits to taking a leadership role within South East Asia to build a regional humanitarian framework.(71) Labor would increase funding to the UNHCR and work with them on the resettlement of those found to be refugees. Assistance would be offered to countries of ‘first asylum’ – such as Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia if they agree to resettle people the UNHCR determines to be refugees. Labor’s commitment to increase the annual humanitarian intake to 27,000 by 2025 is integral to their plan to provide more options to refugees, reducing the need for them to take journeys by sea and encouraging resettlement in countries of first asylum. The Greens similarly support enhanced regional cooperation in the Asia-Pacific and increased funding to the UNHCR and an increase in the humanitarian quota but without linking it to onshore arrivals or other programs.
Australia will need to work constructively and proactively with regional countries, the UNHCR and non-government agencies to promote ratification of the Refugee Convention, improve legal protections for people seeking asylum, increase access to basic services such as health and education and improve prospects for resettlement through more consistent and timely asylum processes. Turning back boats cannot be part of the policy going forward as it undermines the relationships that need to be built with countries in the region which are essential to providing a strong foundation for longer term, sustainable pathways for people seeking asylum.
While a comprehensive regional approach will take time to build there are some immediate actions Prime Minister Turnbull must take. These include; bringing back to Australia those who have been sent to Nauru and Manus Island, releasing all detained people into the community with appropriate supports once health, identity and security checks have been carried out, fast tracking access to work and education rights and reinstating access to permanent protection. Dismantling the secrecy surrounding boat arrivals and the management of people seeking asylum so that there can be full public discussion and greater accountability will also be essential in restoring confidence in Australia’s human rights record and our democratic processes.(72)
66. Refugee Council of Australia. 2015. ‘Improving refugee protection in Asia-Pacific: How Australia can make a practical difference.’
67. Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. (Undated). ‘myths, Facts + solutions’, p. 36.
68. Amnesty International. 2012. ‘Amnesty’s vision: a regional approach to refugees in the Asia Pacific’. 13/08/2012 viewed 07/12/15.
69. Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. 2012. ‘Attachment 6: Australia’s International and Regional Engagement on Irregular Movement and International Protections’, Parliament House, Canberra.
70. Ibid., p. 110.
71. Australian Labor Party, op. cit.
72. Australian Greens, op. cit.