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Asylum seeker impasse: more regional focus needed

While it is vital to hold the government to account for its actions towards asylum seekers in Australia, a far greater impact on refugees results from our inaction in the region and beyond, writes Susan Metcalfe, author of The Pacific Solution.

The Houston report on Australia’s approach to asylum boat arrivals covers a lot of ground and the Gillard government claims to be implementing all of the expert panel’s 22 key recommendations. But to date, media coverage and commentary on the deterrence aspects of the report have far outweighed anything written or said about recommendations on regional co-operation or protection.

While the so-called expert panel has called for a “no advantage” principle “to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements”, the report is equally clear when it states that a regional cooperation framework on protection and asylum issues “is so fundamentally important and such a central focus of this report”.

Since the release of the report, the focus of media and advocates has remained largely on policies relating to Nauru and PNG, excising of the mainland, bridging visas and other deterrence measures — most recently the process of screening out many Sri Lankans on arrival. And while it is vital to hold the government to account for its actions towards asylum seekers in Australia, a far greater impact on refugees results from our inaction in the region and beyond.

The Houston report recommends a regional cooperation and protection framework that provides consistency in processing asylum claims, assistance while those claims are assessed and “the achievement of durable outcomes”. The report notes that the current non-binding Regional Co-operation Framework — an initiative of the region’s 46-member Bali Process — provides a “very productive way forward”. The report also recommends a more comprehensive and sustainable framework as a prerequisite to creating safer alternatives to people smuggling. But so far we have heard little on these aspects of the report or of the government’s progress or intentions.

Governments often find themselves in the realm of tougher deterrence policies after too much indulgence in politics and a lack of resolve to focus on wider and evolving humanitarian questions. Pressures from media, opposition politicians and others in the community create even greater disincentives for policies that won’t offer immediate outcomes. But if we look to the asylum seekers now in Nauru and PNG, would it not have made sense to focus on their predicament long before they set out on dangerous boat journeys? Long before they were taken to Nauru?

Refugees in the region often feel compelled to move between countries in search of safer and more bearable conditions, for themselves and their families. But what if the conditions in other countries were not so threatening or if asylum seekers had been given some degree of certainty about their future, allowed to work, had some legal rights, and could access safe and bearable living conditions — would they have chosen to risk their lives on boats to Australia?

Some may still have decided to come — for reasons of family reunion, better economic conditions, or other motivations — but many more would not. And if our aim is to save lives at sea, improved regional policies will influence the decisions of many refugees.

Important initial steps have resulted from the Houston report, including the increase of Australia’s humanitarian program to 20,000 and the allocation of $10 million for regional capacity building projects. But the Labor government has long been short on commitment when it comes to a regional focus and more detail should now be provided on how it plans to implement further recommendations.

It doesn’t help when Australia announces a policy to release asylum seekers from detention centres but denies them the right to work. How can we credibly encourage other countries to raise standards for treatment of refugees when we keep lowering our own?

But while the government lacks commitment on regional improvement, the opposition’s vision is more severely impaired. The recent announcement to cut places in the humanitarian program under a future Coalition government — offering reduced hope for refugees and more incentive for boat travel — reflects the Coalition’s lack of interest in good long-term policy for Australia.

Shadow immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison recently told the Sky Network that he opposes the Regional Co-operation Framework because it cannot be explained in “simple” terms. He says he has a problem with the Bali Process (co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia) because it has been hijacked by a “United Nations agenda”.

Morrison’s comments are deliberately misleading and aimed directly at a domestic voting audience. The Bali Process, in fact, remains heavily focused on people smuggling and crimes which include trafficking across the region — not on a so-called “UNHCR agenda”. And the current regional framework is underpinned by a clear set of principles that include: promoting human life and dignity, burden sharing and collective responsibility, addressing root causes of irregular movement and promoting orderly and legal migration.

If politicians were motivated to deliver good policy on asylum seekers, they would commit to improving the lives of people before they needed to board a boat to Australia. They would aim to create consistency in processes across the region and offer reasons for people to remain where they are. And they would engage in greater dialogue with other resettlement countries on how to accommodate more of the region’s neediest refugees.

Yes it is hard to argue for improvements that don’t yet exist, that are complex and imperfect and require negotiating with neighbouring countries. It’s much easier for all to keep jousting over control of Australia’s borders. But without pressure on our government to seriously engage with the wider region, progress for the many refugees in our neighbourhood is likely to be disappointing.

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  • 1
    Patrick Donovan
    Posted Sunday, 6 January 2013 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Perhaps the most relevant phrase in your article is the domestic voting audience. With a general election looming, both the Labor party and the Liberal Party are primarily focused on presenting policies that they hope will help win key marginal seats in the next election. Unfortunately this does seem to mean the cherry picking of recommendations from the Houston report that advocate disincentives and deterrents.

    The Labor government is seemingly determined to match or pre-empt policy declarations of the Liberal party relating to asylum seekers, in the hope of securing another term in office. Also as long as politicians believe they have the political mandate from the domestic voting audience to implement such policies, the outlook for asylum seekers and the proposed regional framework will remain uncertain.

    This does present a particularly bleak scenario, as no matter which party wins the next election, they will interpret it as an endorsement of their policies, including their policies on asylum seekers.

  • 2
    David Hadley
    Posted Thursday, 10 January 2013 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    The last two of the 22 recommendations by the Houston report (expert panel) state the efficacy between the onshore and offshore components of the humanitarian program be reviewed within 2 years. Secondly the panel recommended due to the ‘incompleteness of current evidence base on asylum issues’ is to be addressed through a further appropriately funded research programme engaging professional expertise(Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, 2012, p.18).
    Ironically the Australian Medical Association made public in 2011 their position on health care regarding detention centres as harmful to physical and mental health of asylum seekers and refugees. AMA President Dr Hambleton stated in 2011 these concerns have been raised for over a decade. “This damages people desperately seeking a new life” who “are well acquainted with fear, danger and desperation”. This position foreshadows the instigation of offshore detention centres and the deterrent of the no advantage policies. Due to the disregard of past asylum seeker evidence that the expert panel failed to acknowledge this, has resulted in one of Australia’s leading mental health experts Professor Minas resigning from the Gillard’s government advisory Council on asylum seekers. Professor Minas noted, there was a disregard for both the well-being of those directly affected and their long-term consequences as reported in The Canberra Times 2012. Certainly this is enough evidence to instigate a review and challenge to off shore detention centres and asylum seeker treatment.

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