Many people agree that a regional response on asylum seekers is essential. The problem is how to get there.

The model of a regional response was successfully developed during the Indochina outflow in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Without it our region could never have managed.  There would have been widespread panic if tens of thousands of boat people had landed on our northern shores. That precedent, however, needs examining carefully. It took many years.

Achieving a regional arrangement is an ideal that we must strive for, but we need to keep in mind the following.

  • The outflow from Indochina commenced after the fall of Saigon in 1975, but accelerated about two years later with political re-education camps. The Fraser government cabinet documents show that the Australian government was actively involved in co-operation with regional governments, particularly from 1977 onwards. The Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) which flowed from the international conference of 1979 was the result of small steps over several years. The CPA was added to in 1982 with the introduction in Australia of the Orderly Departure Program (ODP) with Vietnam. In 1989 there was a second chapter in the CPA that moved processing to a case by case assessment rather than the blanket acceptance of all persons fleeing as refugees. In short, from 1977 to 1989 there was a slow building process.
  • Regional countries today do not have the same problems about illegals/asylum seekers that they had in the late 1970s/early 1980s. The problems they face now are quite small compared with what they faced earlier — the outflow of 1.3 million Indochinese into their region. Too often we look at our concerns and interests rather than trying to put ourselves in the place of other countries in the region. How do our concerns about the relative small numbers of asylum seekers coming to Australia stack up against the problems, for example, which Indonesia faces? Our concerns are minuscule compared with the concerns that Indonesia has in grappling with the building of democracy, economic reform, education and jobs. We need to be realistic about how regional countries are likely to respond quickly to the concerns that bother us.
  • An important feature of the CPA in the late 1970s and early 1980s was that the US was a major player. The US brought diplomatic and political clout as well as preparedness for large scale resettlement of Indo-Chinese in the US. Vietnam was a crisis for the US at that time. Our problems today on asylum seekers are quite peripheral to US concerns.
  • In seeking the co-operation of regional countries on asylum matters, we should acknowledge that we don’t have a particularly unblemished record. In 1995 Australia, together with other resettlement countries terminated the CPA, which had been a model of burden sharing. We left regional countries with thousands of difficult cases. In Bali in 2002, we sought regional help with boat people. But when the boat arrivals fell away we lost interest. We revived the process again in 2009 when boat arrivals resumed. We have been fair-weather friends in the region. We cannot reasonably expect regional countries to fall in with our agenda. We need co-operation rather than paternalism in dealing with our neighbours.

A regional framework is essential for the long term, but it will take years to achieve. Many refuse to accept that reality. A political compromise is necessary or the Coalition will continue to poison the well of public support for refugees and desperate people will continue to risk their lives at sea. The Coalition has said that it would not support the government, even if it adopted the Nauru option. The Coalition wants the present deadlock and boat flow to continue. They see that they are on a political winner. Is that what people genuinely concerned about asylum seekers really want by aiding the Coalition?

Our regional neighbours don’t have the same incentives to respond as they had at the time of the massive Indochina outflow. We have to build relationships with the building blocks that are available — like the Malaysian transfer. It has shortcomings, but importantly it is supported by the UNHCR

A regional framework is a long-term project. Some hard political decisions have to be made now.

We also need to be careful talking about a “regional solution”. Much can be done to minimise the problem of irregular arrivals by addressing problems at source, in transit and in resettlement. But whatever we do in these regards, we need to accept that desperate people will still seek asylum in irregular ways. They will not always play be our rules. It will always be a messy business. An ideal policy or solution is not in prospect.

*This is an extract from a submission John Menadue and Arja Keski-Nummi made to the expert panel on asylum seekers