We’re forgetting the key facts in the debate about humanitarian migration.

They are that some of key sources for displaced people and refugees are in our region, forming about a third of a vast global problem that numbers in the tens of millions.

But, critically, there are hardly any signatories to the UN Refugee Convention in our region other than ourselves. Other major countries that could offer refuge, like India, refuse to sign, fearful that they, like us, will become a destination for asylum seekers. Instead, they are happy to be used as a transit country for asylum seekers heading to developed countries — mainly in Europe and North America.

In short, international refugee arrangements are hostage to the self-interest of the majority of countries who refuse to sign the Refugee Convention. One of the consequences of those flawed arrangements is that only the wealthiest asylum seekers — usually well-educated, and English-speaking — reach Australia. Poorer refugees remain trapped in camps overseas. This means, incidentally, that our refugee program therefore acts to siphon off the best-educated and most-talented citizens of their source countries.

A real solution to the eternal problem of displaced people would involve genuine regional cooperation — in which all governments accept their humanitarian obligations, rather than leaving it to developed countries. This would also mean regional governments would have a stake in resolving the sorts of conflicts that tend to drive people out of their homelands. India, for example, might make a greater effort to resolve the problems between the Sinhalese Government and the Tamil community in Sri Lanka.

In the meantime, though, the media will continue to obsess about symptomatic and ultimately trivial issues like the Oceanic Viking and the political point-scoring that trails emptily in its wake.

Peter Fray

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