The bad example set by Australia is damaging a global system already in crisis. But it’s not too late to change tack
Last week a Rohingya refugee on Manus Island, died after throwing himself off a moving bus. He had been stuck in Papua New Guinea for five years as the result of Australia’s border protection policies. Push-backs at sea and offshore processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea have been largely successful in stopping asylum seeker boats from reaching Australia. This has come at a high cost. Poor conditions and indefinite limbo are taking their toll on refugees held offshore. 10 refugees sent to Nauru and Manus Island have died since offshore processing was reintroduced in 2012. The Rohingya refugee’s death was the third apparent suicide on Manus Island in the past year. Approximately 1,655 refugees and asylum seekers remain on Nauru and Manus Island. Many face acute physical and mental health issues, exacerbated or brought on from their treatment at the hands of the Australian government. There are also questions around the ethics of shifting responsibility for refugees from the wealthiest to some of the poorest nations in the region. Many Australians are deeply uncomfortable with the current policy. But options are framed in binary terms. Either accept the current cruel system, or face a resumption of asylum seeker boats and the inevitable deaths at sea.
But there is a workable alternative. A collective and cooperative regional approach could enhance refugee protection, while maintaining many aspects of the current approach that the Australian government holds dear. This includes the idea that the arrival of a refugee in a specific country should not necessarily equate to permanent settlement there, the preference for admitting refugees through the resettlement program, and discouraging asylum seekers from risking their lives at sea. The unilateral way in which Australia has pursued these policies has undermined refugee protection and set a bad example for other governments. But these policies can form part of a humane refugee policy, if used as part of a broader collective regional response.
Under the current system, sole responsibility for providing protection and assistance to refugees lies with the government of whatever country they happen to be in. This creates incentives for asylum seekers to attempt longer and riskier journeys to reach wealthier destinations where they can maximise their economic and social outcomes. It also incentivises those wealthy nations to put up barriers preventing asylum seekers from accessing their territories.
Under a collective approach, responsibility for providing protection to refugees would shift from the national to the regional level. The basic premise would be that asylum seekers would be on an equal footing no matter where in the region they applied for protection. This would be facilitated by a new regional agency tasked with coordinating refugee protection in the Asia Pacific. States would be required to commit funds, as well as quotas for resettling refugees. The commitments would be based on the relative capacity of each state, with wealthy actors like Australia contributing more (both in terms of resettlement places and financial support). The procedures for assessing refugee claims would be streamlined and carried out by the new regional agency. Those found to need ongoing protection would go into a centralised resettlement pool to be distributed throughout the region. A refugee in Indonesia would have access to the same procedures and settlement outcomes as one in Australia. Their chances of settlement in Australia would be the same, as would the odds that they end up being integrated into one of the developing countries in the region. This would take away the incentive for asylum seekers to risk the dangerous journey by boat to Australia, while at the same time ensuring that those in need of protection can access it.
There would be an overriding focus on refugee empowerment. States will be prohibited from detaining refugees beyond the time it takes to carry out preliminary identity, health and security screening. Once those checks are complete, refugees would be given freedom of movement in their host community, as well as full work rights. Discrepancies in economic opportunities across the region would be remedied with targeted grants and micro-financing aimed at creating economic opportunities for refugees in poorer nations. These would have beneficial spill-over effects to the broader economy of the host states. This would all be funded by savings incurred by wealthy nations in the region which would no longer need to operate border protection policies or status determination procedures. Australia alone spent more than $4bn on such activities last financial year.
The proposal will only work if implemented in full. It is not a cover for justifying the reduction of refugee rights in Australia to bring conditions in line with the rest of the region. This has been Australia’s strategy since the introduction of Labor’s “no advantage” test in 2012. Rather, the path to levelling the playing field is to significantly improve conditions in the rest of the Asia Pacific region.
Our proposal would not require changing the refugee convention. Its definition of a refugee as a person with “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” for discriminatory reasons has proved wonderfully flexible, adapting to include new groups of marginalised people in need of protection. Its catalogue of refugee-specific social and economic rights remains as valuable as ever, contributing to the goal of getting refugees back on their feet. Rather, we propose a fundamental shift in how refugee law is implemented.
The bad example set by Australia’s current policies is undermining the international refugee protection regime, further damaging a global system which is already in crisis. But it’s not too late to change tack. By taking the lead on developing a collectivised regional response, Australia can provide a blueprint for other regions to follow. Ultimately, it may pave the way to a globalised collective approach that could breathe new life into the international refugee protection regime.
Professor James Hathaway is director of the program in refugee and asylum law at the University of Michigan.
Dr Daniel Ghezelbash is a senior lecturer at Macquarie Law School and visiting fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford. He is the author of Refuge Lost: Asylum in an Independent World.
This article was originally published on The Guardian on 1 June 2018 and is republished here with permission.