Bridging the divide on refugee policy

By Erika Feller
Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government & former Assistant High Commissioner, UNHCR

Australia’s refugee policies are rarely outside the political and public discourse.

This is even more so now with a Federal election looming. Everyone has an opinion. The shades are many and the starting points for any discussion are wide apart.

The Commonwealth Government has deemed it to be in the national interest, which it is responsible for protecting, that first and foremost borders are secure, that ‘queue –jumping’ is controlled and that people who come here do so under oversight, with permission. The Government argues that loss of more lives at sea must be prevented, people-smuggling stopped, and the Australian community protected when it comes to job-seekers, welfare recipients, or difficult to integrate, socially marginalised foreigners. Stated baldly like this, it is difficult to dismiss – that is until one realises just how far democratic traditions and state policy have been driven to diverge by sidelining, in this equation, the importance of facts on the ground, and the broader dictates of refugee law and international burden-sharing.

The facts are incontrovertible and deeply disturbing. The most glaring is that there isn’t and cannot be a queue. Global refugee numbers are very high, with UNHCR reporting an average of one person displaced every two seconds in 2017. Of the 68.5 million driven from their homes, refugees accounted for 25.4 million, internally displaced persons [IDPs] numbered some 40 million and asylum-seekers around 3.1 million. In addition, there were around 10 million stateless people. By far the majority (85 per cent) of refugees arrive and stay in countries proximate to their own. These are mainly low-or-middle income countries whose environment and infrastructure can ill support the burden of large scale refugee arrivals. Resettlement can be a solution for small numbers only, particularly with the decline in resettlement quotas. New UNHCR data shows only some 55,700 refugees were resettled in 2018, or 4.7 per cent of the 1.2 million deemed in need. Australia’s humanitarian intake for 2018/19 is capped at 18,750. Against this background it is seriously difficult to substantiate accusations of queue-jumping. These are people who cannot return to their countries, who have limited options for decent and self-sustaining stay where they are, and who have next-to-no opportunities for resettlement.

All of this to say that burden-sharing is called for more than ever. Australia is not alone in winding back its refugee protection system, but its methods have been particularly worrying. Deterrence, not protection. Long term, remote detention, a legislative underpinning which sidelines applicable international law, and ministerial discretions effectively outside the ambit of domestic checks and balances. In trying to stave off a problem rather than more responsibly handle it, successive governments have ridden rough-shod over international law, domestic legal traditions, peoples’ well-being and rights and Australia’s well-deserved international reputation as a fair international player with a long-standing and admirable humanitarian record. In short, the system has morphed into one which locks people up without viable solutions at a heavy human and financial cost.

Such developments have been driving the advocacy community to try and radically re-frame the refugee and asylum debate in this country. Principles of international law and cooperation are its starting point, the facts about unequal burden-sharing are put upfront on the table, and Australia’s capacity to do more is carefully researched. Again, baldly stated this is more than a reasonable position. It has, though, to be admitted – which is not always the case even in the advocacy camp – that in the hard fight in support of this vision, the nuances can get lost. Not all asylum seekers are refugees. Protection and solutions can legitimately be separated. International obligations are rarely absolutes and where their scope is inflated, this impedes debate and has actively contributed to polarised positions which only exacerbate the already dramatic situation for those caught up in the middle.

Can this dynamic be changed and if so, realistically how?

Firstly, the local narrative needs to be turned around, given a factual, less emotional base, to promote understanding about refugees in the broader society. A fact not sufficiently prominent in the debate here is the contributions refugees make to their host communities. In many cases they have proved a vital source of social and human capital in Australia, not least given the skills shortages in our economy and declining populations in rural areas. Culturally their presence has enhanced multiculturalism and increased cultural diversity. Economically they have been shown to contribute substantially to regional development.

Secondly there is a new dynamic internationally, following the endorsement late last year of the UN Global Compact on Refugees – a potential blueprint for fairer and sustainable burden-sharing, which contains suggested activities for inclusion in regional and national action plans. If it works as it should, the global response should be much enhanced, which would be to the benefit both of refugees and of all States called upon to respond. Centred as it is on a ‘whole of society’ approach to managing refugee dilemmas, the Compact can serve as a vehicle for government and advocates to bridge differences and work together to give it life.

Thirdly and more immediately, a formal and expert quality review, in depth, of the whole asylum system in this country should be a priority, aimed at reinstatement of a fair, effective and flexible on-shore refugee status determination processes. This would not exclude expedited procedures for claims most likely without merit or pre-screening arrangements to identify alternative channels of review, outside the asylum channel, for the migrant component among arrivals. And nor would it mean all those found to be refugees should find their durable solution in Australia

Flexibility yes, but there must be adhered-to bottom lines. Any future arrangements must respect due process, international responsibilities, and human decency. The Manus and Nauru arrangements, which may have done irreversible damage to many, should be terminated. The system must accommodate the reality that there will be some refugees with a boat journey behind them who will be Australia’s responsibility.

Finally, legislation which in effect creates distinctions between first-and-second class refugees should be a repealed and the 1951 Convention reinstated, not dismissed, as a central reference point.

This article was first published on John Menadue's Pearls and Irritations.

Erika Feller is a Professorial Fellow at the Melbourne School of Government, former Assistant High Commissioner, UNHCR and UN Association Australia (UNAA) Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees and Asylum Seekers.

Event: Towards a New Australian Refugee Policy: Does the UN Global Compact provide a way forward? Panel Discussion, Immigration Museum, 14 March. Ms Feller will lead this discussion, along with Paris Aristotle AO, Chair of the Settlement Services Advisory Council; Dr Sonja Hood, CEO, Community Hubs Australia and Fiona Patten, MP, Leader of Reason Australia.

Banner photo: Twenty-two-year-old Minara Begum walks through Balukhali camp in Bangladesh on 5 March 2018. Courtesy of UN Women via Flickr.


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