There is more to the ALP policy on refugees and asylum than what we heard from the media, focused as it is on factional battles and the language of “back- flips” on contestable pieces of public policy such as boat turn backs.
As always in such a highly charged area of public policy the “devil is in the detail”. Labor however gets it about right in focusing on the priority for international engagement and the development of regional and bilateral responses to population displacement. But this policy also hardens the shift in asylum and refugee policy begun when Labor was last in office by maintaining the Offshore Processing Centres (OPCs) , regional resettlement and adopting a policy of boat turn backs.
It will be several weeks before we see the final endorsed platform but putting together the draft platform and the amendments voted during the conference Labor appears to have crafted a policy strong on border protection but mixed on responses regarding asylum seekers.
For instance, detention will be as a last resort, community processing will be the norm, the refugee status determination will be improved, the Refugee Review Tribunal (RRT) reestablished and there will be better oversight of the offshore processing centres. These are all welcome policy aspirations. The track record with implementation has not been as good so if Labor wants to avoid another policy mess it would be smart to start working on such implementation plans now.
On the most controversial pieces of policy, the maintenance of the Offshore Processing Centres, regional resettlement and boat turnbacks Labor has lost an opportunity to articulate why these are important planks of their platform – beyond the deaths at sea argument and having an independent oversight of OPCs.
For this reason parts of the platform read more like a tactical and political response than a comprehensive policy on asylum and refugees. This policy is tactical because it gives a little to those people opposed to OPCs and boat turnbacks – an increase in the program, removal of Temporary Protection Visas, reinstatement of the RRT , insertion of critical Convention obligations into domestic law and more funding to UNHCR – in exchange for a reluctant acceptance of the offshore processing arrangements and boat turn backs.
The fact is that turning back boats is an ethically contentious policy. While the argument of deaths at sea is compelling – the reality is any on water operation, including transfers to lifeboats or navy vessels is risky. Moreover such a policy is not a sustainable long-term approach – cost wise or through the deployment of additional vessels. It is a last resort policy, reflecting the failure of our regional engagement strategies.
Australia’s approach in the region has been selfish – it is all about our domestic problems and us – we do not hear what the regional issues are or how we could help. The most recent example of this is Australia’s refusal to assist in search and rescue of boats carrying displaced Rohingya from Burma in the Andaman Sea, when even the USA deployed flights to search for vessels.
What Labor needs to now do is strengthen its policies on regional and international engagement. It needs to set in context these controversial pieces of policy. It needs to say they are there only for so long as we get the regional architecture right and we have an agreed regional approach to displacement and asylum – where burden sharing is genuine and people are treated with dignity and humanity.
For instance, a regional response needs to be more than increased funding to UNHCR or a statement that they will work on a regional cooperation framework. It should clearly articulate the regional partnerships and bilateral arrangements that are needed to support displaced people.
It could for example articulate a regional response strategy that highlights:
- Partnerships with regional governments and international agencies and NGOs to put in place alternative protection arrangements which could include – access to a fair and transparent assessment of claims, security of stay and access to education and work as well as health services and shelter.
- Development of agreements that allow for transfer of asylum seekers to regional processing centres,
- The place of readmission agreements in certain circumstances,
- Explore alternative migration pathways such as orderly departure arrangements that ease the pressures on regional asylum systems
- Work with regional governments and international agencies in the development of a complementary regional protection system that would support early resolution of peoples claims and a system of burden sharing in finding durable solutions for refugees as well as other displaced people.
- Develop a new displaced person program (axed in this years budget by the government) that would support the ability of displaced people to stay in a country of displacement in safety and security. Such arrangements are more than increased funding to UNHCR but building partnerships across government and non government sectors that mean people do not need to use people smugglers because they are in a place of safety.
- Respond to the regions concerns about trafficking .
It is in this context then that an increased humanitarian resettlement program makes sense, as well as the maintenance of hard-nosed policies such as turn backs and the OPCs.
But if such cooperation is to be sustainable it needs to be a long-term project not easily achieved in electoral cycle and in reality should be bipartisan in approach. If Labor is serious about regional engagement then it needs to be working now on its implementation strategies.
As with any policy response to a complex issue and one involving desperate and vulnerable people displaced from their homes and countries this is a curate’s egg of a policy. There are good elements to the policy and some that will challenge our sense of fairness and well-being. Labor has a chance to articulate that this is a humane response by moving away from the language of military operations, singularly inappropriate for dealing with asylum issues, and acknowledging that as a package it does make us confront very difficult policy choices concerning our fellow human beings.
Arja Keski-Nummi is a former First Assistant Secretary in the Refugee Division of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. She is a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development.