The Debate

Time for Australia to Rethink Its Asylum Policy

Recent Features

The Debate

Time for Australia to Rethink Its Asylum Policy

With the “Pacific Solution” crumbling, Australia needs to overhaul its approach to refugees.

Time for Australia to Rethink Its Asylum Policy
Credit: Flickr/ takver

This week has been a disaster for Australia’s Immigration Department.

After five judges of Papua New Guinea’s Supreme Court ruled that Australia’s detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island was illegal, the country’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, made the incredible announcement that the regional processing center would be closed. He has asked Australia to immediately “make alternative arrangements for the asylum seekers.”

Refugees and asylum seekers detained for years in PNG have announced their intention to sue the Australian government for breaking the law. A local lawyer has said that they could be entitled to compensation in excess of AUD$100,000. Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has remained obstinate, refusing to rule out that asylum seekers will remain in detention in PNG and reasserting that they will never come to Australia.

Meanwhile, on Nauru, a refugee has set himself on fire. After meeting with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a 23-year-old Iranian man named Omid self-immolated whilst screaming, “I cannot take it anymore.” Two Iranian women are missing. There are also confirmed cases of the Zika virus; pregnant asylum seekers have been exposed.

The government is now scrambling to find alternatives to its offshore detention facilities at Manus Island and Nauru. It claims to be in talks with Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines over the relocation of asylum seekers. However, the Gillard government’s 2011 “Malaysia solution” imploded when it was deemed illegal by Australia’s High Court. Attempts to quickly palm off asylum seekers to the large, poor nations of Indonesia and the Philippines are unrealistic, too.

The Refugee Council and many others have called for the asylum seekers to be brought to Australia for processing and resettlement. This would be humane and sensible action for the short-term.

But Australia’s longer-term policy needs a major overhaul. Given the failure of consecutive governments’ so-called “regional solutions,” it is time that Australia initiates a sustainable response in good faith to what is a complex, global issue. So, what can be done?

Creation of so-called “proper channels” 

This government justifies its self-avowedly tough policy via Operation Sovereign Borders through the claim that it saves lives by deterring people from using the services of people smugglers and attempting to travel to Australia by boat.

Asylum seekers that are intercepted en route are returned to their point of origin or placed into a barren offshore detention camp to wait, for years in many cases, for processing. Supporters of such harsh measures constantly attack “queue jumpers” and appeal to the use of “proper channels.” Well, these channels must first exist.

When Malcolm Fraser was prime minister in the late 1970s, he faced the Indochinese refugee crisis. When “boat people” became an increasingly difficult issue for his Liberal government, he actively sent Australian immigration officials to squalid camps across Southeast Asia to process asylum claims. Although Australia only resettled a fraction of these refugees, people could see there was a process. It gave them hope. The boats stopped.

If Australia truly wants to “break the people smuggler business model,” it should start by processing existing asylum seekers and refugees stuck in the transit countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. The government must overturn the retroactive legislation, introduced under Tony Abbott, of denying resettlement to any person who registered with the UNHCR after July 2014 even if they are found to be a refugee. This legislation is unfair, has not deterred asylum seekers, and has strained relations with our most important neighbor. Asylum seekers will continue to travel to Indonesia in droves, putting further pressure on the already-stretched immigration detention and social services systems of a poor nation.

In the later years of his life, Fraser campaigned for the Australian government to send immigration teams to countries of first asylum to process refugees there. This would be to truly create”‘proper channels.”

For example, there are almost a million asylum seekers residing in Iran who have fled Afghanistan, according to the UNHCR. Pakistan has an estimated 1.5 million refugees – more than any other country on the planet. The majority of these people are also Afghan. Given that the majority of asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia are of Afghan origin, as are many refugees permanently resettled in Australia in recent years, this is significant.

People fleeing Sri Lanka and Myanmar must also be given a genuine avenue through which to apply for asylum. Currently, for persecuted people from these countries, virtually no option exists except to get aboard a boat.

Putting in place these processes to apply for refugee status and resettlement would genuinely help to stem the flow of asylum seekers making dangerous, expensive journeys to Australia.

Supporting civil society

Perhaps less controversial, although no less important, is the need for Australia to support civil society in the Asia Pacific. Non-governmental agencies and organizations play a vital role in providing refugee status determination processes, services such as food, education and shelter, as well as pushing governments for the fulfillment of basic rights of people seeking asylum.

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, has argued, correctly, that Cambodia is one of two countries in Southeast Asia (along with the Philippines) that has signed the Refugee Convention. But it’s no secret that as one of Asia’s most impoverished nations with such a recent history of atrocity and humanitarian crisis itself, Cambodia has unsurprisingly never lived up to its obligations. It is widely held that Cambodia signed the convention in the early 1990s, mistakenly thinking that it would grant greater aid to the rebuilding nation and its returning refugee population after the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Australia has now given AUD$55 million (USD$41.9) to Cambodia, when no refugees want to permanently settle there. The Cambodian government itself has declared this policy a failure. This money would have gone infinitely further in promoting refugee protection were it given to NGOs in the region, which — unlike Cambodia’s government — are accountable, transparent, and intend to continue assisting people in need.

Let’s put the scale of this monetary waste in perspective. The UNHCR is the body primarily responsible for addressing the needs of refugees in the Asia Pacific, as elsewhere. Its organizational budget for Indonesia, where some 13,000 people under the UNHCR’s mandate now reside, is a paltry USD$7 million.

Malaysia, through which many seeking to come to Australia also transit, receives an allocation of USD$17 million. The UNHCR budget for the entirety of South Asia – including the nations of India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – is just USD$36 million. All are dwarfed by Australia’s gift to Cambodia in return for a failed policy.

Providing greater funding to the UNHCR would allow for greater capacity to process more refugees more efficiently, thus further enhancing “proper channels.” Also deserving of Australia’s funding are a plethora of under-resourced NGOs working in the region, who provide a raft of services for asylum seekers: legal aid, education, housing, food – you name it.

By boosting civil society organizations’ capacity to assist asylum seekers, Australia can further prevent people from getting on boats, bolster UNHCR refugee status determination processes to be faster and more efficient, and in turn rebuild diplomatic relationships with ASEAN states tarnished by a unilateral policy on asylum seekers.

Lead by example

Mandatory detention, boat turn-backs, and diplomatic arrogance have eroded Australia’s credibility in improving the protection of human rights in our region, not least for refugees. The executive director of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, this week said that Australia had come to limit its ability to speak out against human rights abuses in the region, for example the death penalty. Roth put it in no uncertain terms: this is because “Australia is basically ripping up the Refugee Convention.”

The United Nations has now criticized Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum on countless occasions. Most recently was in February, when the government decided to deport 250 asylum seekers back to offshore detention. In 2015, a UN Special Rapporteur on Torture concluded in his report that Australia’s use of indefinite, mandatory detention violates the Torture Convention. Late last year, more than 100 countries lined up to share their thoughts on Australia’s detention regime at the UN. Few were supportive.

It’s time for Australia to lead by example on the issue of asylum seeker and refugee rights to regain its international standing, respect, and diplomatic credibility.

A sustainable solution means genuine cooperation with ASEAN neighbors and countries further afield in the Asia-Pacific to meet Australia’s international legal obligations, encourage diplomatic friends to increase their commitment, and thus share the burden of forced migration.

While Malaysia and Indonesia remain safer than Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, or Iraq, asylum seekers will continue to arrive in Australia’s immediate neighborhood. Whether or not it would like to, our government cannot ignore this reality.

It is time for a fundamental shift in Australia’s policies toward people seeking asylum.

Max Walden works for an NGO in Indonesia. He has worked with refugees in Australia and Southeast Asia for a number of years.