It’s time to press reset on Australia’s treatment of refugees

Australia’s management of people seeking asylum has leant towards policies that are costly, inhumane, and in contempt of international law. They’re certainly not constructive for our regional relationships either. It’s time to reset and find better solutions in collaboration with our neighbours.

Tight borders, restricted movement, stay-at-home orders, a loss of freedom. These aren’t only the “unprecedented” features of our new coronavirus-induced normal. They are also the experience of people who have sought asylum in Australia for years.

On and off for almost 20 years, Australia has sent asylum-seekers to detention centres overseas as part of a policy of offshore, indefinite detention. This means living on-site, under poor conditions, for an average of 553 days and up to over six years in some cases. Asylum-seekers await the processing of their applications, and then a resettlement opportunity elsewhere once a refugee status determination has been made. (Over 70 percent of people now in Nauru and Papua New Guinea have obtained refugee status.)

The incidence of mental health issues related to detention is sky high – deaths on Nauru have largely been due to poor health conditions or suicide and the UNHCR has condemned the living standards.

Existing policies are not economically viable. Australia has spent over AUD $2.4 million per detainee in Nauru and Papua New Guinea since 2013, and damaged historically good relationships with these neighbours. A resettlement deal with Cambodia, costing AUD $55 million, only led to 7 people being resettled in the country, the majority of whom chose to return to their home countries despite having qualified for protection.

We are in what feels like a race to the bottom, while other countries like the UK are also making noise about the supposed threat of refugees, and states are playing ‘hot potato’ with the lives of real people.

Image by John Englart on flickr. Refugee Rights Protest at Broadmeadows, Melbourne.

This status quo is dangerous. Australia has set a precedent for the world to follow – Indonesia has increased its detention of refugees, and Australia’s example has encouraged far right parties in Europe to follow its model. We should seek to become a leader on the other end of the spectrum. Instead of having the strictest, most questionable adherence to international human rights conventions, we should lead the way in our region towards a new set of norms.

This is a time to think more innovatively about the solutions we present to asylum-seekers and refugees. In terms of resettlement, Australia should harness the opportunities in the Indo-Pacific and work towards creating a better culture of refugee treatment. At this stage, Australia has not identified adequate alternative options to Cambodia or the United States, and both present significant challenges: individuals resettled in Cambodia have found the conditions to be unsatisfactory, and the US rejects a high number of refugees, such as Iranians and Somalis. 

A deal with Malaysia announced in 2011, which offered the promise of Australia resettling 4000 refugees over four years alongside an asylum processing arrangement, was struck down by the Australian High Court due to significant threats to human rights. Alternatives such as New Zealand’s offer to resettle some of the refugees have been continuously rejected.

Image by Green MPs on flickr. Pictures from inside the Australian Government's immigration detention facility on Manus Island, PNG.

The Asia-Pacific region accounts for over nine million people of “direct concern” to the UNHCR, and very few of these countries are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. Leadership in our region could look like promoting a consistent legal framework for refugee protection across the Indo-Pacific (moving on from the current system of bilateral relationships), and increasing consultations and oversight by third party organisations such as the UNHCR.

We need to reinstate the Refugee Convention in our own legal frameworks, and encourage our neighbours to become signatories to it as well. Next, we need to conduct reviews at home aimed at smoother refugee status determination processes, so as to ensure that the agreements we enter into are in line with human rights requirements too.

Enter Covid-19. We’re not going to see a significant increase in the movement of people in a time of a global pandemic. Immigration has largely come to a halt, with a possible 85% reduction in migration next year. Refugee resettlement seems to be down, though there is a concerning lack of information about what is going on.

Let’s use our fresh experience of what a lockdown and loss of freedom of movement feels like to think more progressively about refugee management systems and practices. A more “win-win” mindset could dramatically improve our region’s management of asylum-seekers and refugees, from the point of application for asylum across Southeast Asia to resettlement solutions that have individual, national and regional interests at heart.

This is an opportunity for Australia to become an example of efficient and humane refugee management practices that meet international legal commitments. In time, the Indo-Pacific could become an exemplary region that heralds a sea change for refugees.

Image by Overseas Development Institute on flickr. Rohingya refugees in Malaysia - an elderly couple in their home in Kuala Lumpur.
Infographic by Sophie Barbier

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