The ignorant arrogance exhibited by Tony Abbott in telling European nations that they should learn from his success in stopping the boats was met with the derision it deserved.
Make no mistake, Tony has not “stopped the boats”. Indeed, 2015 has seen the largest number of displaced people on record since the Second World War – over 60 million. 42,500 refugees are displaced per day.
When we add in internally displaced persons and people displaced by disasters, the numbers are even more confronting: two people are displaced every second. In our own region, since the end of 2013 approximately 94,000 refugees and migrants fled Bangladesh and Myanmar by sea, including 31,000 people in the first half of 2015 – a 34 per cent increase compared to the previous year. In April and May, an estimated 7,000 Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi nationals were abandoned by smugglers and stranded at sea for weeks as governments refused to allow them to disembark. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand reportedly pushed boats out to sea.
It is believed that up to 1,000 people died of starvation, dehydration or violence on the boats. People have been starved, beaten, imprisoned and sexually violated, both on-shore but also increasingly on the smugglers’ boats.
They are often held for ransom and non-payment can result in death. The many stranded boats and the discovery of mass graves in smugglers’ camps in Thailand and Malaysia helped to galvanise global attention and a call for action. Australia’s approach to asylum seekers continues to be marked by a parochialism that is at best naïve, and at worst, downright selfish. Although the numbers of refugees Australia receives are comparatively inconsequential, the impacts of the government’s policies are deeply personal, and will have intergenerational effects.
The countless reports documenting abuse and ill-treatment in offshore processing countries, and in detention facilities within Australia’s own territory, are shocking not only for what they detail, but also for the fact that Australia has created a climate in which this kind of treatment can occur. Internationally, Australia’s approach has attracted incredulity and much criticism. Many refugee-hosting States wish for the resources our government has at its disposal, yet watch with incredulity as we spend billions of dollars creating the kinds of conditions that they are desperate to alleviate.
While there have been welcome developments, such as the creation of 12,000 additional resettlement places for Syrian and Iraqi refugees, and Australia’s financial contribution of $44 million to those displaced in countries of first asylum in the Middle East, it must nonetheless be acknowledged that these are comparatively small gestures in light of global humanitarian needs. In no way can they compensate for the harm that Australian laws and policies are inflicting on refugees and asylum seekers who have arrived here by boat.
In 2015, Syria has dominated media coverage, which is appropriate for a humanitarian emergency of its magnitude. However, this has been largely at the expense of other significant humanitarian emergencies and protracted refugee situations, which have been too easily forgotten by the international community – crises in the Central African Republic, Nigeria, South Sudan, Ukraine, Burundi, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, and longstanding situations in Afghanistan and Somalia. Intensified fighting in Iraq, for instance, resulted in an additional 2.8 million IDPs this year, on top of 900,000 already living in sub-standard conditions without even the most basic services.
UNHCR has warned that this situation may become unmanageable if the international community does not provide greater assistance.
In April, Yemen, which itself hosts a quarter of a million registered refugees (mostly Somalis) saw some 150,000 people displaced in the space of just a few weeks by escalating violence.
In September, the World Food Programme ran out of funding in Jordan, and was forced to cut food aid to 229,000 Syrian refugees there.
The consequences of this were explained by a representative of the Norwegian Refugee Council: ‘Refugees mention to us cuts in food assistance as one of the main reasons for leaving Jordan’ and moving on to Europe.
While conflict may be the initial driver, the failure to address humanitarian needs in countries of first asylum adds to people’s desperation and search for safety. In Africa, thousands of South Sudanese continue to flee conflict each week, with around 1.5 million IDPs and 700,000 refugees hosted predominantly in Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. Challenges here include land and food shortages, and limited humanitarian access.
The Central African Republic is one of the most poorly funded emergency situations, where thousands of people lack even the most basic survival assistance.
Since the end of 2013, around a quarter of the population has been displaced internally, and close to half a million refugees have fled to Cameroon, Chad, Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Too many States are shirking their responsibilities for refugees and asylum seekers, pushing them away, both figuratively and literally, by navies, border guards, walls, fences, visa regimes, carrier sanctions, pandering to hostile public opinion, and adopting domestic laws that flout international obligations.
As UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, has rightly observed, such approaches ‘will never be the answer’ because they simply divert refugee movements along other routes, aggravating ‘already precarious situations in regions embroiled in conflict.’
The accident of geography should not be the basis on which refugees are supported – or not.
Australia’s current vision for where and how to build regional protection structures is not the model to follow. Whatever has been said about it being “protection of lives” driven, it is pretty clear that the overriding motive has been deterrence. If the boats are fewer, this has been achieved by substituting one set of problems with another.
The holding and processing centres have become long-term and deeply troubled detention centres. They have witnessed repeated incidents of serious physical violence, including rape, and they house many whose mental health gets worse by the day. The resettlement alternatives are not viable for the majority, meaning that these unfortunate people are in practice Australia’s long-term responsibility, at exorbitant cost.
Domestically the policies are hugely divisive. They have had to be underpinned by a swathe of highly contestable laws which are inconsistent with liberal legal traditions and international responsibilities.
Our so-called ‘regional approach’ is all about law enforcement cooperation, border management, information and intelligence sharing on people smuggling, travel fraud and border security, visa cooperation to prevent illegal movements, secure exchange of biometric data, and disruption of criminal networks.
There is little consideration given to how to help those fleeing persecution, war, disaster and poverty. Instead of regional asylum system building we have focused on deterrence. Our politicians need to accept the reality that the number of displaced people is not going to decrease any time soon and make adequate preparation to cope with the inevitable flow of refugees and migrants.
Equating asylum with safe haven for terrorists is not only legally wrong, but it vilifies refugees in the public mind and exposes persons of particular races or religions to discrimination and hate-based harassment.
The success claimed by the Coalition for stopping the boats is an expensive farce that has actively harmed those people we should be helping, deterred others from seeking our help thus closing off their options, and shoved the problem onto other countries.
If your children were hungry and cold, would you lock them outside and think you had dealt with the problem, leaving them there crying at the door as a deterrent to any other children who have nowhere else to go?
If places of disembarkation can be agreed, acceptable reception arrangements can be in place, status can be adjudicated through mobile protection teams, stay arrangements can be settled and migration pathways set up instead of the brick wall or free-for-all scramble we are currently seeing.
The best way to put people smugglers out of business is to open up a safe route with an organised pathway to follow. Co-author of the book Towards a Refugee Oriented Right of Asylum, Professor Juss, calls for a “refiguring of international refugee law as a compensation scheme just as much as a human rights protection scheme… to avoid poor people having to face the consequences of someone else’s military adventure”.
He suggests “if we can give monetary compensation for tortious acts, there is no reason why we cannot give refugee status in the same way.” I would like to acknowledge the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, in particular Professor Jane McAdam and Erika Feller, whose speeches at the conference in November 2015 provided the majority of text for this article.
There are some very smart people in Australia and around the world with a great deal of experience in dealing with refugees and good ideas on how to proceed. It is time the politicians in Australia, who have failed dismally in coming up with a plan, got out of the road and let people who have no political interest set up a programme which works.
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