Asylum seekers – good news at last. John Menadue

The joint communique issued yesterday by President Yudhoyono and PM Rudd is the best news that I have read on asylum seekers for many years. A regional framework is the only viable policy for the future. Individual countries cannot do it alone.

The communique said

‘As co-chairs of the Bali Process, the two Leaders reaffirmed their commitment to continue to develop a regional solution, involving countries of origin, transit and destination which covers elements of prevention, early detection and protection to combatting trafficking in persons and people smuggling and other related transnational crimes. They stress the importance of avoiding unilateral actions which might jeopardise such a comprehensive regional approach and which might cause operational or other difficulties to any party. The Prime Minister of Australia welcomed Indonesia’s initiative to invite key origin, transit and destination countries to a conference to explore concrete operational and policy responses, including regional approaches and efforts to enhance border security, in addressing regular movement of persons.’

President Yudhoyono added that ‘All countries in the region must share responsibility for asylum seekers and I have decided to host a ministerial meeting within a month to look at ways of dealing with the issue.’

Together with others, and particularly Arja Keski-Nummi, I have been urging a regional response for several years. In August 2011, Arja Keski-Nummi, Kate Gauthier and I, in association with the Centre for Policy Development, issued a statement on ‘A new approach. Breaking the stalemate on refugees and asylum seekers’. This statement highlighted the importance of a regional response. The statement was endorsed by a wide range of prominent Australians.

In our joint statement to the Expert Panel in July last year, Arja Keski-Nummi and I again emphasised the importance of a regional framework. There are also many articles on this subject on my website johnmenadue.com.

In my most recent blog of 1 July, I said ‘Regional cooperation was essential during the Indochina outflow … it is also true today. Australia should propose a regional conference on asylum seekers and displacement.’ I added that Australia should offer to host such a regional conference. Hosting by the Indonesians will be even better.

My experience as Secretary of the Department of Immigration during the Indochina outflow convinced me that only regional burden-sharing can bring a lasting solution. That burden-sharing must not only be by the host countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, but also by resettlement countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US. Importantly the US has just joined the ‘Bali Process’. US influence and clout is critical. It is also important to include Japan. During the Indochina outflow Japan, not surprisingly, did not take many Indochinese refugees. But it was a very generous funder.

I keep asking myself why wasn’t this initiative taken years ago? We can only conclude a failure of ministerial and departmental leadership. Focused on boats, boats and more boats, ministers and departments retreated into crisis mode and were unable and perhaps unwilling to address the longer-term strategic issues.

The meeting proposed by President Yudhoyono in a month’s time will build on the Bali Process. We need to be patient. But at last we are headed in the right direction.

In the months ahead, Australia needs to keep several things in mind.

  • All this will take time and we must see it through. The Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) which flowed from the International Conference of 1979 concerning Indochinese refugees was the result of small steps over several years.  Australia did well as a contributor to the CPA but we didn’t have a particularly unblemished record. In 1995 Australia, together with other resettlement countries, terminated the CPA. We left regional countries with thousands of difficult cases. Many of them were handicapped people.  In Bali in 2002, we sought regional help with boatpeople. But when the boat arrivals fell away we lost interest. We revived the process again in 2009 when boat arrivals resumed. Regional countries could be forgiven for thinking that we have been fair-weather friends. We must not let that happen again.
  • The United National High Commissioner for Refugees must also be an active participant in building this regional framework. The UNHCR has expertise, experience and importantly, its good name will add to the credibility of the enterprise.
  • It is important at some stage to include civil society, mainly NGOs in the process. Along with governments, they are important players and have a wealth of experience. Their participation will also help depoliticise the building of a regional solution.

The good news must now be followed by some hard work. But at last we are headed in the right direction and hopefully we can put behind us the toxic debate and futile policies of recent years.

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