Refugee policy was the source of much contention that the recent national conference of the Australian Labor Party. Here is my scorecard:
Increase the humanitarian intake to 27,000 by 2025. Rating: 6/10
90% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries, many of whom are being overwhelmed with the number Jordan for example, has a population of 6 million and 3 million refugees; Lebanon with a population of 4.5 million has 1 million refugees. The tyranny of distance and our island status (we don’t share borders with any unstable nations) means that Australia receives just a fraction of the world’s refugees and asylum seekers. Over against the millions crossing the borders into Jordan and Lebanon the greatest number of asylum seekers Australia ever received in a calendar year was around 25,000 and that was against a far lower long-term trend. One of the important roles we therefore play in the international protection system is to resettle refugees from places like Jordan and Lebanon. Currently our humanitarian immigration program is 13,750 and is due to rise to 18,500 by the year 2018-19. The decision to increase to 27,000 is very welcome and easily within our capacity as a country. The only problem is the target date for achieving this. 2025 is about four electoral cycles away, which in political terms makes it the equivalent of the never-never. Labor should commit to 27,000 in the first term of office.
Increased funding for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Rating: 8/10
The ALP plans to make Australia one of the top five donors to the UNHCR. This is very welcome indeed. The UNHCR is the coordinating body for the processing and protection of refugees across the world, yet in any given year receives less than half its required funding. This results in long processing times and in people suffering severe deprivation as UNHCR is unable to provide resources.
Work towards a regional agreement on asylum seekers and refugees. Rating: 7/10
The only sustainable solution to the presence of refugees and asylum seekers in the south-east Asian/Pacific region is a regional agreement by which the countries of the region agree to share responsibility for processing and protection of asylum seekers and refugees. This has been missing for some years and is a welcome addition to the Labor party’s platform. The test of course will be just what we are willing to agree to. A regional agreement that sees countries like Cambodia taking refugees is in my opinion a disaster. A regional agreement that sees middle and higher income countries taking refugees would however be a great outcome.
Improved oversight of detention facilities and children’s welfare. Rating: 7/10
Some of the revelations of what has been happening in our detention centres are extremely alarming, so improved oversight mechanisms are very important. The problem is that the proposal is to provide better oversight to a dysfunctional system. Indefinite detention, and particularly indefinite detention offshore, is a cruel and inhumane way to treat people who have committed no crime and are fleeing persecution. Moreover, if history teaches us anything, it’s that abuse is exponentially more likely to occur whenever people are placed in institution.
Abolish temporary protection visas. Rating: 10/10
The reintroduction of TPV’s by the Abbot government was one of the nastier and most vindictive dimensions of their asylum seeker policy. TPV’s prevent asylum seekers from ever bringing their family to Australia, and because their visa is due for periodic renewal, leaves them in a state of fear and uncertainty about the future. Given the government’s policy of turning back boats and refusing entry to any person who manages to slip through the net and arrive in Australia by boat, the reintroduction of TPV served absolutely no deterrent purpose. They are pernicious things that should be eliminated as soon as possible.
Offshore detention and turnbacks. Rating: 0/10
The ALP argues that the combination of offshore detention without the possibility of settlement in Australia and the turning back of boats that set out for Australia have been successful in stopping boats arriving on Australian shores and therefore preventing death at sea. This is a policy they will continue. They are correct about one thing. These policies have stopped boats from arriving in Australia. But this has not prevented deaths at sea. The reason people board boats for places like Australia is that they are unsafe, face an impossibly long wait for resettlement (less than 1% of refugees resettled in any given year), and face intolerable hardships. By shutting off passage to Australia we have simply reduced by one the number of places they can seek asylum. They will now journey somewhere else in the world and find those journeys are as dangerous as the one to Australia.
Punitive measures such as those proposed by both major parties will simply mean people die somewhere else in the world. What we need a positive protection measures such as a partnership with Indonesia in processing in timely fashion refugees and asylum seekers arrive in Indonesia, an agreement to share responsibility for their protection (e.g. Australia agrees to take 50% of those who arrived there), and the provision of some certainty to refugees as to when that will be resettled. This will remove the incentive for people to make journeys to Australia, but do so in a way that genuinely protects rather than placing them out of sight and out of mind.
Moreover, those in detention on Nauru and Manus Island seem to be consigned to the waste bin of history, with no prospect that their circumstances will ever change. In the name of human decency we must address their plight.
The one glimmer of hope is that if a Labour government can negotiate the regional agreement it has flagged, that we will end up with a solution something like the one I have suggested and the policy of turn backs simply become redundant.