Since 1992 successive Australian Governments have tried to discourage asylum seekers coming to Australia and thus avoid our obligations under the Refugee Convention to provide protection to asylum seekers. This was done by the introduction of mandatory detention, temporary protection visas, the excision of islands from our migration zone, and by sending asylum seekers to Nauru and Manus Island. Changes made by the Rudd Labor Government were intended to eliminate the most extreme elements of harsh deterrence. The stalemate in the present policy proposals provides an opportunity to completely rethink the way we treat asylum seekers and to implement a more humanitarian asylum seeker policy.
What the objectives of Australia’s asylum seeker policy should be
1.      Comply with the principles of the Refugee Convention
2.      Respect the human rights of asylum seekers and refugees
3.      Comply with the UN Convention for the Rights of the Child and complementary protection legislation
4.      Establish alternative pathways to resettlement that discourages asylum seekers travelling to Australia onboard unseaworthy boats
5.      Show compassion to people in distress
6.      Avoid costly long term detention of asylum seekers in offshore detention camps that are known to cause psychological distress and long term harm
Suggested policy
Ensure all asylum seekers are promptly assessed in the region (with the right of review)
Provide security check refugees (with the right of appeal) before they come to Australia.
Promptly bring asylum seekers accepted as refugees to Australia in substantially increased numbers.
Make it easier for refugees to have family reunion in Australia.
Increase capacity within the above policy framework to fund asylum seeker programmes including providing accurate information to the Australian population regarding refugee issues and to combat racism.
Labor for Refugees understands that the expert panel has been requested to provide advice and recommendations on policy options aimed at preventing asylum seekers risking their lives on ‘dangerous boat journeys’ to Australia.
Labor for Refugees is an organisation with a very extensive membership of committed people who deal with asylum seekers on a day to day basis. Our members have the benefit of understanding the motivations and reasons for asylum seekers embarking on dangerous sea journeys, because we talk to those people and we have their confidence.
Labor for Refugees is very concerned that in order for the Panel to make recommendations which will be effective, it must understand the motivation for asylum seekers embarking on sea journeys. We believe that this understanding is lacking in the debate. There is one key point that our members want the Panel to appreciate, which is that asylum seekers get on boats because when they arrive in Indonesia they are told that they will not be processed for protection in Australia for more than 10 years. That is why families get on boats. They see their children’s future evaporate.
It is vital to understand that this key factor, which motivates asylum seekers to embark on sea journeys, is a product of an artificial and deliberate policy of successive Governments to restrict the places for resettlement of those who are refugees present in Indonesia.
The two key facts, not appreciated by many to whom we have spoken, are these:
            Australia only settles an average of 56 refugees from Indonesia per year;
            There are only 4,239 asylum seekers present in Indonesia.
Given the small number of asylum seekers who make it to Indonesia, there is simply no justification for the restriction of places which creates the delays that motivate people to embark on sea journeys. If we are to break the ‘people smuggler’s business model’ we must give people a ‘queue’ to join.
If the proportion of resettlement places allocated to Indonesia is increased to a more reasonable level, say 2,000, then Australian officials could tell asylum seekers that they could expect to be processed in 2 years by Australian Embassy officials (as opposed to the 2 UNHCR officers currently burdened with the caseload).
In our experience, the key cause of desperation amongst asylum seekers is uncertainty and the absence of a clear and defined pathway. If that desperation can be removed we believe that the motivation to take boat journeys will be removed.
Further, the increase in resettlement from Indonesia is likely to be offset against reductions in visas to boat arrivals, as people will no longer embark on sea journeys.
This proposal will not create any ‘honeypot’ effect in Indonesia. There are considerable logistical difficulties which already prevent people from reaching Indonesia; that will not change. The honeypotargument against giving refugees safe passage from Indonesia ignores the difficulties that refugees experience in getting to Indonesia: the cost, time, their health, their ability to travel etc. Note that almost all of the asylum seekers in Malaysia and Thailand are from Myanmar and asylum seekers from Myanmar cannot get to Indonesia because movement outside of refugee camps in both countries is heavily restricted.
In the 1970’s, resettlement pathways were established for asylum seekers, enabling them to be  assessed in countries of first asylum (Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong); this did not result in a flood of asylum seekers and there is no reason to think that it would be different now.
Indeed, if it is accepted that the current policy settings involve maximum pull factors for people to travel by boat to Australia, then it must be accepted that the maximum pull factors for people to go to Indonesia already exist; and yet the numbers there are still small and there no substantial increase in people in Indonesia in recent times. The ‘honeypot’ argument should be rejected.
In fact, it will be in the interests of Indonesia to clear as many people through a better resettlement process to Australia.
We see this Panel as offering the only potential to provide a circuit breaker to what has been a toxic and false debate. This is a real opportunity for the true underlying problem to be addressed in a sensible way as we have proposed.
Guiding Principles for Reform
In undertaking this task, we urge that the panel adopt the following principles as a guide:
·         Genuine concern and compassion for the wellbeing and future of asylum seekers who come by boat; alternatives to ‘dangerous journeys’ should not be driven by political considerations. That people are willing to risk their lives in such circumstances is an indicator of desperation. Policy should not be simply motivated by border control and exclusion but a genuine desire to find safer alternatives for people in need of protection.
·         Respect for the integrity of the Refugee Convention and the international protection frameworks and compliance with Australia’s legal obligations under the convention and complementary protection legislation
·         Respect for the time-honoured maritime principle of rescue at sea above all other considerations. Preservation of lives and prevention of tragedies requires constant vigilance on the part of Australia, in collaboration with Indonesia. Given Australia’s superior capabilities for surveillance and rescue, it is essential that the Australian Maritime and Safety Authority take the lead role rather than relying on the lesser resources of Indonesian maritime authorities in responding to vessels in distress en route to Australia.
·         Recognition that punitive policies targeting asylum seekers arriving by boat are contrary to the Refugee Convention by discriminating on the basis of mode of entry
·         Recognition of the profound psychological harm caused to asylum seekers found to be refugees of harsh deterrence policies including offshore internment in remote Nauru and Manus Island and Temporary Protection Visas.
·         Recognition of  compelling ‘push’ factors including internal conflict and human rights abuses that influence the decision to seek irregular access to Australia’s protection frameworks from source countries such as Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Burma
·         Recognition that the vast majority of asylum seekers who come by boat are found to be in need of protection and are therefore by definition, vulnerable people who have experienced trauma
·         Recognition of the very limited options for asylum seekers in Indonesia and Malaysia in being resettled permanently within a reasonable time-frame; that pathways to resettlement are not well established and supported in the region
·         Recognition that while it is desirable for Australia to control entry, it will not always be possible to achieve this in the context of world-wide forced migration movements
·         Recognition that Australian Government policies such as severe restrictions on refugee family reunion contribute to the number of irregular arrivals
·         That the Bali Process should involve genuine engagement and collaboration with countries of the region aimed at addressing the needs and human rights of asylum seekers and refugees, and raising the standards for protection within the region.
Labor for Refugees is concerned that the overheated public discourse and politicisation of refugee and asylum seekers policy is extremely damaging, undermining the status of refugees and asylum seekers in the community and harming their chances for successful settlement. It also damages the prospect of balanced decision-making on policy, distorting public perceptions about the numbers of people seeking asylum. Australia’s geographic isolation means that relatively few asylum seekers will actually make it to Australian shores. The most recent UNHCR statistics for 2011 show that Australia recognised 5,726 asylum seekers as refugees in 2011, just 0.56% of all individuals and groups recognised as refugees globally. The vast majority of refugees and asylum seekers continue to be hosted by developing countries.
Measures to prevent asylum seekers risking journeys by boat
1.      Immediately establish pathways to resettlement from Indonesia. Over the period 2001-2010, Australia has accepted only 56 refugees from Indonesia per year, and only 24 in the past six months. This is despite Indonesia being the primary exit point for boats of asylum seekers to Australia and despite the fact that there are currently 4, 239 refugees in Indonesia awaiting resettlement. Lack of formal pathways to resettlement is directly contributing to irregular arrivals.Labor for Refugees recommends that 2000 places be allocated annually to resettlement from Indonesia. This would effectively create a queue for resettlement in Australia.
2.      Assist with the processing of refugees in Indonesia and the region. This should include increased funding to the UNHCR in Indonesia in particular and processing of applications by the Australian Embassy, with staff preparing reports assessing claims which could then be sent to Immigration for completion. This may necessitate increased staffing levels at the Embassy, with costs offset against a reduction in processing costs on Christmas Island.
3.      Currently, there are only TWO people in Indonesia processing refugees, with UNHCR funding expected to be halved over the next few years. If we are serious about stopping people getting on unsafe boats, we need to increase funding to UNHCR and have more people processed in Indonesia, so refugees can see that they will have their claims heard, for free, rather than paying large sums to people smugglers.
4.      Increase the refugee intake to Australia to 20,000. This would allow Australia to offer a more regularised process of resettlement from countries of the region whilst also continuing to resettle refugees from other zones of conflict. The offshore component, 6000 places annually, of the refugee and humanitarian quota of 13,750 offers little flexibility to achieve this. Labor for Refugees supported the proposed increase of 4000 extra places for resettlement from Malaysia, but we do not support under any circumstances the return of asylum seekers to Malaysia.
5.      Create a separate quota for preferential and concessional refugee family reunion in the Family stream of the annual migration program. Labor for Refugees supports the de-linking of sponsored places for family reunion, including split family members, under the Refugee and Humanitarian quota, and the creation of a separate category allowing for increased refugee family reunion in the annual migration program. This is a policy response which could be implemented almost immediately. The Refugee Council of Australia and other agencies have identified the lack of opportunity for family reunion as a significant factor contributing to irregular arrivalsThe cost of family reunion is now prohibitive for refugees in Australia, with the Special Humanitarian program providing the primary option to bring separated family members to Australia. The linking of the humanitarian quota to the acceptance of asylum seekers as onshore refugees means that places are reduced for family reunion. This not only distorts the refugee and humanitarian program, it also creates artificial (and damaging) competition between refugees and asylum seekers. Other major resettlement countries do not link offshore and onshore refugee programs and make separate provision for family reunion.
6.      Regional cooperation. The recent tragedies involving sinking of boats highlights the urgency for Australia to work collaboratively and constructively with neighbours in our region to find solutions to refugee movement and protection. The Bali Process should not be used merely for the purposes of achieving exclusion of asylum seekers from Australia by thwarting boat departures but should aim to extend, through inter-country cooperation, access to protection and resettlement for refugees. This includes accelerated processing and support for refugees and asylum seekers living in the region, including access to housing, health, education and employment. Enduring solutions are needed which enhance protection and minimise harm to vulnerable people.
  1. Cost advantage of onshore processing. Processing of refugees onshore will work out to be ten times cheaper than processing a refugee in Nauru or Christmas Island and will avoid the potential for substantial litigation. The money which is saved by way of onshore processing of refugees can then be used for a range of other considerations, including funding to UNHCR, building facilities for processing and even go towards the cost of settling refugees in the community.
  1. Labor for Refugees vigorously opposes:
·         Return of asylum seekers to Malaysia
·         Offshore processing on Nauru or Manus Island
·         Reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas
·         Towing boats back to sea/enforced return to Indonesia
  1. It is crucial that we learn from the experience of offshore processing and TPVs under the Howard years.If we are genuinely concerned for the welfare of asylum seekers, these policies must not be reintroduced. The so-called Pacific Solution was high cost not only to the Australian taxpayer but in terms of adverse impacts on asylum seekers, most of whom qualified as refugees. The experience of incarceration in remote detention camps re-traumatised these vulnerable people, the majority of whom eventually resettled in Australia. The devastating mental health and family impacts of TPVs is well documented. The reintroduction of TPVs would be  intentionally harsh and punitive, contrary to the Refugee Convention and would target only those coming by boat. The exclusion of family reunion created a direct incentive for women and children to come by boat. It is well known that most of the passengers who drowned on the SIEV-X were seeking to reunite with family members.
About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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