Why we would gain from a regional approach to refugee protection

What would a sustainable regional approach look like? Anne McNevin outlines the main features – and benefits – of an alternative to the Labor–Coalition deterrence consensus

31 July 2013



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Iraqi asylum seekers look out from a cargo ship that rescued them after their boat sank off Java island en route to Australia on 27 July.
Photo: Idhad Zakaria/ AP

LAST week in Inside Story I argued that both sides of politics are having the wrong conversation about asylum seekers, focusing on how to stop the boats coming rather than looking at why they come. Overwhelmingly (in over 90 per cent of cases, according to the government’s own statistics), they come because of the need for protection as refugees. As long as we persist with a policy framework based on blocking lawful transit to places where protection can be accessed, we perpetuate a market in irregular transit. Far from breaking the “people smuggler’s business model,” our current policy framework gives life to it.

If the answer lies in making protection available to refugees, what would a sustainable regional approach look like?

Protection for refugees has two dimensions: (1) immediate physical safety, free of persecution, and (2) the ability to generate a livelihood, reunite with and provide for one’s family, and educate one’s children – the basics for living a dignified life. These two dimensions account for why asylum seekers move from countries of first asylum (transit countries) to others and why some countries are unacceptable as long-term resettlement options. (1) may well be achieved by moving from a source country like Afghanistan to a transit country like Indonesia. But (2) is currently not possible in many regional transit countries, either because the legal infrastructure does not recognise refugee rights and leaves refugees vulnerable to arrest and unable to work lawfully (Malaysia, Indonesia), or because levels of development and the specifics of social arrangements do not currently permit for local integration (Papua New Guinea). Without (2), refugees are left in a virtual state of social and economic limbo, if not destitution, even if (1) is satisfied.

There are several reasons why Australia should develop a regional approach that delivers both (1) and (2). The reasons most often cited rest on our obligations under international law and the broader moral case to engage with refugees as fellow humans in need. There are other more self-interested but also compelling cases to be made. We currently divert enormous human and financial resources to “border protection.” Yet none of Australia’s policies focuses in a significant way on either the root causes of forced migration or the drivers of onward journeys from transit countries. Our current policy settings tackle symptoms rather than causes – an expensive approach that doesn’t ultimately offer the “order” that it promises.

Deterring boats moving from Indonesia to Australia – even if successful – backs up the problem in Indonesia. This places a strain on bilateral relations and becomes “our” problem again. It also leaves asylum seekers in Indonesia without access to protection (1)+(2). The market for transit to protection somewhere else remains. People smugglers will exploit that market and the circular effect from deterrence will continue.

A regional approach to protection would prevent perilous boat journeys by removing the need to take them. For asylum seekers, the decision to get on a boat is driven by the availability (or not) of protection (incorporating (1) and (2) above). The aim is to provide that protection – or a pathway to it – where people are and when they need it. A regional approach needs to provide fair and efficient processing of protection claims in transit countries with a commitment to a resolution of those claims (resettlement for designated refugees) within a reasonable time frame. If a realistic end-point to the processing phase is in sight, I suspect asylum seekers will wait for it, even if it means that some aspects of the second dimension of protection (2) are delayed (family reunion, for instance). The problem comes when we do not offer people any realistic prospect of achieving (2) or we make the delay so long as to harm mental and physical health.

Timely processing requires a collaborative effort either by building the legal and administrative capacity of regional states to conduct processing, or by resourcing the UNHCR to provide an administratively (but not geographically) centralised processing service. In a recent article in the Conversation, Andrew Jakubowicz has provided some good ideas about how visa arrangements might work at this stage of the process.

After processing, resettlement could take place anywhere in the region that was resourced and supported, with some consideration to the particular needs of refugees (proximity to family, cultural preferences and so on). The costs of processing and resettlement would need to be shared across the region according to capacity, rather than being borne by the host country alone. Currently Australia and New Zealand are the only two countries adequately resourced for resettlement. But there is nothing to prevent other countries in the region from being equipped. For instance, development funding could be linked to resettlement projects. This would be a sensible use of foreign aid budgets and a way of attracting international and donor agency development funds. The prospect of such funds might also act as an incentive to the prior necessity of acceding to the Refugee Convention.

Consider this in-principle idea. Town or village X commits to resettling a certain number of refugees. That commitment is matched by development funding to generate investment, and to expand income-generation activities and health and education facilities, such that both locals and refugees benefit. Resettling refugees becomes associated with economic development rather than being seen as a drain on already limited resources. The boost from productive investment helps to alleviate social tensions around new arrivals.

Clearly, this approach requires fleshing out by local communities and businesses and those with expertise in development. It won’t be appropriate everywhere, and in the short term it will work in some places better than others. Clearly there are more and less effective ways of tying development to resettlement and we risk unintended consequences from ill-considered and opportunistic schemes. But the idea gets us focused on the conversation we need to be having: how to provide sustainable options for people to live dignified lives free of persecution (refugees) and how those in the region who are not refugees can learn to live productively with the ongoing reality of people who need to be on the move.

A regional approach must be negotiated with, rather than dictated to, regional governments. It can only work if all parties have genuine incentives to participate and stand to make long-term gains. There are several ways to benefit and benefits will differ from country to country. Some may gain from development spin-offs (from investment or labour or both). Some may benefit from a more even distribution of costs. All are likely to benefit from the greater regional stability that the effective provision of protection, linked to development, would create.

This kind of approach will be expensive. But so is the alternative. The costs of our current policies are running into the billions and are only set to increase. Yet deterrence does not come with the long-term pay-offs that a protection framework provides – for Australia, for the region and for refugees. •

Anne McNevin is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Monash University.

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6 Comments

  1. John Lewis added this comment on 2 August 2013 | Permalink

    Anne McNiven’s article is thoughtful and compassionate. But it lacks one critical component. There is no mention of numbers.
    46 million people are eligible for refuge. How many of those will be resettled as a result of the proposed regional cooperation program?
    What is a reasonable refugee intake for Australia?
    The Greens apparently think that 30,000 is a good number. Labor increased our intake by 25% to 20,000 and people coming by boat only increased. What makes the Greens think that an extra 10,000 places would discourage the millions who would like sanctuary in Australia from risking their and their children’s lives on a perilous boat trip if they are able to arrange such a passage?
    The other consideration lacking in the arguments of those opposed to deterrence is that every person who comes by boat and is accepted as a refugee is one fewer who is accepted through formal channels.
    Finally, when Howard broke with the bipartisan immigration policy he created a situation that meant that Fraser’s program for the Vietnamese could never be replicated. Australian people have always seen the latest wave of migrants as a threat to their standard of living and often jobs. This was the case with the Italians, the Greeks and every non-Anglo wave of migrants since. Both sides of politics supported the immigration policies leaving those who disagreed no where to express their dissatisfaction electorally. This is no longer the case.

  2. Peter Watt added this comment on 7 August 2013 | Permalink

    In Response to John Lewis

    The fact of the matter is that saying you will take 20,000 people and actually doing it are completely different.

    What Anne is trying to express is that there needs to be a regional solution that enables us to take the people smugglers’ business away.

    Also we need to understand the numbers better the 30,000 number will actually address the 30,000 people who are actually awaiting asylum. Also asylum is not settlement it is a method of offering someone protection.

    Please feel free to visit my blog at http://australianelection.blogspot.com.au/

    I have published an article today and some links to some facts and numbers that actually point to what is happening.

  3. Clarissa Mort added this comment on 10 August 2013 | Permalink

    Thank you, Anne McNevin, for not just expressing a compassionate and civilised view, but also proposing a proactive approach to the problem of asylum seekers. I am on the point of despair at the policies of the major parties, which, as you point out, deal with the symptom not the cause. The problems & pitfalls of Rudd’s PNG solution look like enormous potholes down the track, and make his policy look very much like a quick-fix election stunt.

    No-one seems to consider the issue of an under-resourced UNHCR office in Indonesia. I understand it processes only 20-30 refugees a week! Surely it would be to everyone’s benefit if regional countries (+ other UN members) put more resources into helping it deal with the numbers. This is one reason refugees head for the boats, as they cannot even register with the UNHCR.

    John Lewis’ comments on numbers are still focusing on the symptoms, rather than the cause. Dealing with the numbers in Indonesia would help that country, regional countries and the refugees themselves in a practical & co-operative way – a win situation for all.

    I hope you have put these ideas, Anne, to Tony Burke.

  4. Kevin Bain added this comment on 12 August 2013 | Permalink

    Thanks for the article but as the Aust govt has repeatedly talked about the need for a regional approach, arguing the case for it seems beside the point.(If your point is that the PNG approach is pre-emptive and should wait, I suggest that ignores the big increase in boats this year and escalation of the issue to election centre stage; not surprising the govt. doesn’t wait on external drawn-out processes.)

    I would like to hear your considered comments on the regional proposals already out there from John Menadue http://johnmenadue.com/blog/?p=633, Andrew Jakubowicz, Malcolm Fraser and others.

    What the rights narrative and the legal narrative often don’t connect with is the emergent issues which undermine them, so I’d like fuller comments on what you think about the debate on:

    * the Refugee Convention and whether it should frame our approach eg. a former Refugee Review Tribunal member says it is counterproductive and we should leave it http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2013/s3805755.htm
    * the disconnect between the Immigration Dept and the RRT, with 80% of initial decisions being overturned; there’s something very wrong here http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-07-17/refugee-tribunals-ordered-to-consider-new-country-information/4824788
    * while most commentators reject the ‘economic migrant’ category, others say it is a growing issue http://clubtroppo.com.au/2013/08/11/real-problem-or-race-to-the-bottom-part-i/ This article at The Conversation advocating for Iranian asylum seekers, who are not refugees is a good example. http://theconversation.com/signs-of-hope-in-iran-but-can-australia-be-part-of-the-solution-16836
    * the survey work by Andrew Markus at Monash shows clearly that only 23% of people favour offering PR to asylum seekers who arrive by boat, yet 75% are “very or somewhat positive” towards PR or citizenship for refugees assessed overseas. http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/mapping-population/–documents/asylum-seekers-fact-sheet.pdf This seems to inform Labor’s policy development in a context where 46% of Liberal/National voters think it is
    one of or the most important issues for the election. http://essentialvision.com.au/documents/essential_report_130617.pdf In other words, a move towards actually taking more refugees while restricting onshore asylum seekers (by boat anyway.)

  5. Anne McNevin added this comment on 15 August 2013 | Permalink

    Thank you all for your interest in this article. I cannot respond to everything, but a few of brief points:

    On Numbers:
    the figure of 46 million is often cited. In fact, the UNHCR estimates that, of the world’s 46 million displaced, some 800 000 people currently require resettlement as a matter of urgency. For others, repatriation or integration in their own regions remains a more viable and often a more desirable option. The figure of 800 000 still exceeds the availability of resettlement places by a factor of 10 and presents a considerable challenge. But thinking in terms of 800 000 makes a global resettlement scheme conceivable whereas thinking in terms of 46 million tends to inspire panic and retreat.

    There is no magic number of places for Australia to offer but the number could certainly be more generous. To make inroads into resettling the 800 000 around the globe, countries like Australia need to encourage others in the region with the means and legal infrastructure to do so, to offer resettlement programs. Countries like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, for example, are well equipped to do much more than they currently do. For those countries that currently lack the means to offer resettlement, Australia needs to help build their legal and developmental capacity so that they might do so in the future. But Australia’s current approach undermines such regional efforts because it sends a message that we will shift the costs and consequences of refugee flows elsewhere.

    On asylum seekers taking the place of other refugees: This is a policy decision that can be changed. It is the government that decides to allocate resettlement places in this way, not something that is reasonably within asylum seekers’ power to change. There are good reasons why many people cannot access an embassy or consulate, or a UNHCR mission at the point when they need urgent protection. Without that access, people are forced to enter safe places via irregular means. This point is defended under the Refugee Convention, which prohibits discrimination against asylum seekers based on their mode of entry. The broader point remains, however, that if protection (or a pathway to it) is offered when and where people need it (in transit countries like Indonesia for instance), then the spontaneous nature of arrivals will be reduced.

    On PNG and regional approaches: My point is that the PNG solution combats the symptoms (irregular boat arrivals) rather than the causes (the unavailability of protection in the region and, in turn, the drivers of insecurity in source countries). The kind of regional approach I am proposing does the reverse: it starts by resourcing the provision of protection when and where asylum seekers need it. To this extent, the PNG solution as it currently stands is at odds with an approach that is genuinely regional, long-term and sustainable.

  6. Kevin Bain added this comment on 20 August 2013 | Permalink

    Anne, news reports are that the “one-off summit” SBY and Rudd announced in early July is to start on Aug 20 in Bali. At the time, it was promised to involve countries of origin, transit and destination from around the region and have an action focus. I hope we are able to keep the conversation going here with your analysis of its outcome.

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