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.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey