Begin Rant: Removing domestic politics from regional refugee management

13 07 2012

One does not need to be learned in any related subject, whether it be international relations, human rights, or anything else, to know that Australia is screwing up its response to refugee arrivals by sea at the moment.

Really, on any issue that is contentious at the moment in domestic politics we’re screwing it up, but lets stick to this one.

Let’s start with some basic acceptance of, well, we shall use the term “realities”.

  • There are many people throughout the world who become displaced through war and strife in their homelands. For a number of them, Australia is a reasonably logical place to try to head towards, whether because, for example, you’re leaving the west coast of Sri Lanka and there’s nothing else between you and Christmas Island, or because you have family or other support already here.
  • The number of people in this category is only likely to increase with ongoing instability or very fragile democracies in the various spots in the Middle East, Thailand, Burma and local disruptions that are subject to periodic flare ups, such as Tamil areas of Sri Lanka or Aceh in Indonesia.
  • Between those places and Australia there are few, if any, nations that recognise the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (CRSR). In the South East Asia region, only Cambodia, the Philippines and Timor-Leste have acceded to the 1951 convention. Some refuse to accept refugees at all.
  • Between those places and Australia there are few, if any, places where freedom, safety, and even the basics of survival such as a job or income source and some kind of housing are readily available. Many of these nations cannot feed and clothe and effectively employ their own people. For example, 12.5% of people in Indonesia, or 30 million out of their population of 242 million, live in poverty. Or to put it another way, there are more people living in poverty in Indonesia’s rather crowded stretch of islands than the entire population of Australia scattered around the edges of an enormous continent. Refugees accepted in to these nations, even if they were accepted, by and large would not be assimilated to become productive members of a healthy society – they will add to an already overwhelming social burden of unemployment, homelessness and poverty in a much less fortunate country.
  • Flying here is only an option if you have a passport. Less than half of all Australians have a passport and we are known for our high rates of travel; I’m not sure why we expect people from countries with lower rates of income and education and, generally speaking, higher rates of corruption and dysfunctional governments to make sure they had passports for the family just in case they had to flee for their lives.
  • The problem of ‘boat people’ is one almost entirely of domestic politics. We have always had refugees arrive by boat. They have always been processed and their claims either accepted or denied as appropriate. There has always been push and pull factors, dangers with making the journey, people willing to pay people with boats to take them and people with boats willing to take the money to make the trip. None of this started happening in the last decade, only the rhetoric is new. There is no new emergency, no sudden catastrophic happenstance that requires immediate action, no fluctuation outside of the normal fluctuation of these things over time (taking in to account that when Howard made a whole heap of Australia not Australia any more, that probably screwed with the numbers quite a bit).
  • We do not accept our fair share of refugees. (Ok, that’s probably more my opinion than a ‘reality’.) Our intake is considerably less than most comparable nations, and we count both those who arrive on our shores and those who we take from the UNHCR system from the same quota.
  • There is, we shall be polite here and call it an argument, that ‘boat people are queue jumpers’. I will resist the impulse to respond to Ross Cameron’s bizarre claim last week on The Drum that someone who arrives by boat would be queue jumping a Palestinian who has been in a refugee camp since the Six Day War… but an asylum seeker cannot be expected to know that we have one refugee quota for both transfers from refugee camps and those who arrive here seeking asylum and that they are jumping a queue that does not exist. None the less, we shall note the political reality that the argument exists and needs addressing.

Ok then. I’m trying to be polite. I am doing so, because I am trying to find a solution. Solutions are not generally found when not being polite. And to be honest, no one in the Australian political spectrum at the moment is being polite on this issue, with most of the rhetoric being more aptly described as alarmist or even absurd.

The simple solution for this one is to get the domestic politics the hell out of it. Easier said than done, unfortunately, but let’s give it a bash.

Step 1: Gift the Christmas Island and Nauru facilities to the UNHCR, with appropriate funding for their ongoing operation. Manus Island if they want it as well. (Cocos Island is probably a bit out-of-the-way, maintain as a naval station with short-term facilities available should anyone turn up.) UNHCR to transform in to independently run and managed refugee processing centres to manage any refugees in the region. May also use, if they choose to, as overflow facilities in the off-season to transfer people from severely crowded European and African facilities while awaiting more permanent resettlement – I understand Air Nauru could use the business. If the UNHCR wish to use contract transport to move refugees from various places in the region to the processing facilities – say to shuttle refugees from Indonesia or Malaysia to Christmas Island in order to reduce disorderly arrival and reduce safety risks to asylum seekers fleeing persecution – they are well within their rights to, it is entirely up to them. Refugees in these facilities would have the same standing as refugees in any UNHCR facility anywhere in the world and may be settled anywhere in the world.

Step 2: An MOU will be entered in to with the UNHCR, Nauru, Indonesia and other appropriate parties re diverting boats of asylum seekers to Nauru or Christmas Island. UNHCR operational management, and not the Australian Government, will make the call about what boats of asylum seekers go where and will be assisted operationally by Australian Navy and other sea services as appropriate.  Any vessel already in Australian waters for whom it is deemed by the UNHCR, in conjunction with the Naval commanders on duty, safer to dock at an Australian port, will be able to dock and its occupants seek asylum in an orderly and humane way, without fuss or nonsense. Normal quarantine and customs precautions will apply, refugees will be processed in exactly the same manner as if they had arrived by plane.

Step 3: Australia ups its UNHCR refugee intake in line with comparable countries and changes the quota so that UNHCR processed refugees will not lose their place in the ‘queue’ for other refugees that make their own way here. That is, the very, very small number of locally arriving refugees (remembering most will now be diverted to UNHCR facilities) will not be subject to a quota, and the quota for UNHCR processed refugees accepted should not be affected by the number of local arrivals processed. Queue jumping political problem fixed.

Step 4: To reduce the numbers of boats and potential loss of life at sea, let’s do something far more effective than screaming at an Australian audience about it. An integrated behaviour change communication campaign, preferably coordinated by one of the IAPC members with experience in the region (ie. not a big advertising firm that’s just going to charge lots of money and achieve nothing, but a strategic, political, behaviour change campaign) should be rolled out to inform asylum seekers considering making the trip of the dangers and potential loss of life in making a sea crossing, and informing of the legal ways to apply to move to/seek asylum in Australia or safe UNHCR transports to processing centres. This campaign could also be handed over to the UNHCR for execution as they see fit.

I am not an expert in refugees or international human rights, but I do believe that domestic politics is hurting innocent people. To fix this issue we need to get domestic politics out of it – and the only way I can think to do that is to hand the whole lot over to the UNHCR, and tell all of our politicians to siddownanshuddup.

This is the really sad part: for all their screaming about, oh the humanity, the UNHCR this and the UNHCR that, and how they want to help the poor people, I can’t imagine any scenario where the Greens would agree to this, let alone champion it – they wouldn’t want to lose the issue. Greens love issues. Results? Not so much.

End rant.

NB. Please, oh please, do not defend Ross Cameron. If you are unaware that Palestinian refugees are not processed by the UNCHR at all and are in a queue (if we must use that gawd awful and not at all accurate terminology) that never really moves by design, well at least not until they push all the Jews back in to the sea, then please leave this website immediately and go learn stuff. And then send it to Cameron so he can learn stuff.  kthxbai.

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