It was inevitable that a government looking for a high-profile announcement on asylum seekers, not to mention a solution to the vexing problem of a massive influx of maritime arrivals, would eventually focus on the UN Refugee Convention.

The government hasn’t outlined exactly what changes it wants to pursue on the convention, but as others including former foreign minister Alexander Downer have noted, the process of achieving any actual change is likely to take a very long time, and is thus no solution to the current problem of people dying on boats trying to reach Australia.

An announcement, however, offer a political solution for Labor in western Sydney particularly.

Like a lot of aspects of the asylum seeker problem, the UN convention is viewed wildly differently depending on which side of the issue you come from. For many on the Left, the UN convention is holy writ which may as well have been brought down by Moses, and anything that even smacks on being inconsistent with it is evidence of Australia’s innate racism. The most minor changes to migration law are routinely attacked as “inconsistent with the Refugee Convention”, even when the UNHCR says otherwise.

But for some on the Right, the Refugee Convention is an outdated relic, somehow preventing Australia from responding effectively to the problem of refugees, a treaty that was all very well at the start of the Cold War when the only refugees were acceptable types like Europeans, but now exploited by people from developing countries to conduct a peaceful invasion of the West.

In fact the convention is neither the source of all wisdom on refugees nor a profound evil. It’s an international treaty, and like all such documents, it’s the product of its time, reflective of the international environment that produced it, and likely to require revision as that environment changes. The most significant criticism is that it legitimises irregular arrival, and thereby implicitly establishes two classes of refugees, those who can (or can afford to) reach signatory countries, and those who can’t.

But the convention hasn’t stopped Australia from returning large numbers of illegal economic immigrants from Sri Lanka — now well over 1000 in recent months — or establishing a no-advantage test in its administration of asylum seeker arrivals, in which your arrival in Australia by boat doesn’t afford you any advantage, notionally, over someone stuck in a transit camp in Pakistan who has applied for resettlement through the UNHCR. The problem with the no-advantage test is that it has failed to deter maritime arrivals, not that the Refugee Convention limited it.

But adherence to the convention is hardly any safeguard of asylum-seeker rights; nor does it guarantee decent treatment of asylum seekers. China, for example, is a signatory to the convention but routinely returns North Koreans fleeing the world’s most brutally oppressive state. Australia could continue to be one of the world’s biggest resettlers of refugees — particularly after then-immigration minister Chris Bowen massively boosted our humanitarian intake to 20,000 per year — and continue to consider claims of asylum seekers fairly and with compassion without any involvement with the convention at all. Even if it were not a signatory to the convention, who apart from outright racists would insist Australia automatically return any arrival to their country of origin without appropriate consideration of asylum claims?

As long as Australia isn’t going to do that, we’ll remain a potential destination for those fleeing persecution, signatory or not, tow-back policy or not, because the alternative is waiting years for resettlement in transit camps. We can only make it more difficult to come by boat, and easier to arrive under UNHCR auspices and with a humanitarian visa. So far our attempt to do that hasn’t worked, and fiddling with the convention won’t change that.

It might, though, generate the sort of Daily Telegraph headlines that Labor wants to see in western Sydney, and that’s the real goal at the moment.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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