BOB DOUGLAS. Changing Australian Refugee Policy: What is realistically and politically feasible?

Jul 18, 2019

Is there a new spirit of bipartisanship developing between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese? As well as discussing a bipartisan approach to the legislation of religious freedom and an indigenous “voice”, might they also consider a new bipartisan approach to refugee policy?

Both political leaders must know that there is enormous community unease about refugees still held on Manus and Nauru, and about our current refugee processes, which have deeply harmed innocent, desperate people who risked their lives in search of a better future.

Yes, the people smuggler boats have apparently stopped arriving on our shores.  But that they have stopped coming, is not a tribute to defensible policy but to the breaking of our international commitments to UN principles and damaging both people, and our international reputation.

Whether the widely publicised cruelty of the Pacific solution has played a role in stopping people from committing their life savings to the smugglers, or whether the cessation of boats has been a pure consequence of the boat turn-back policy, is immaterial. The bottom line is that we have turned our backs on the massive movement of 71 million displaced people across the world, 26 million of whom are said to be refugees and 3.5 million of whom are said to be seeking asylum. We have dumped the issue back to transit countries like Indonesia and implied that the flow of desperate people is their problem, not ours.

Of course there is a limit to what our nation can do to relieve the global pressures to provide a home for displaced refugees. But we are not doing anything like our fair share and our reputation is besmirched by what we have been doing.

A major rethink by our political representatives is needed, and it should be informed by discussions that engage Australian communities everywhere.  We should all be thinking constructively about what we can do, as climate change and sea level rise displaces many thousands of Pacific Islanders.   We should recall the enormous contributions that refugees from South East Asia after the Vietnam War made to our culture and our productivity.

As the newly minted Minister for Immigration, David Coleman MP and Labor’s shadow spokespeople, Senator Kristina Keneally and David Giles MP take up their new responsibilities, here are some ideas that they could be considering.

·      Reduce our current skilled and supported family immigration quotas, from the current level of about 180,000 per annum to 100,000 per annum and increase our humanitarian refugee intake to between 60 and 80,000 per annum.  The contribution of asylum seekers to Australian skills and productivity is likely to be just as great as the skilled intakes we currently bring to Australia, often from countries that can ill afford to lose them. The cost of providing supports to asylum seekers to integrate into Australian industry will be much less that the current exorbitantly costly Pacific “deterrence policy”.

·      Close all detention centres in Australia, Nauru and Manus and commit the savings, to a combination of regional Foreign Aid to countries like Indonesia, and to supporting the development of two or three UNHCR-managed regional processing centres in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Pacific.

·      Adopt the seven Principles for Australian Refugee Law that have been recently highlighted in publications from the University of NSW-based, Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law. The group has stated that Australia should:
o      Comply with its international legal obligations.
o      Provide humane, fair reception conditions.
o      Provide an efficient and transparent system for processing asylum claims.
o      Respect the principles of family unity and the best interests of the child.
o      Create additional safe lawful pathways to protection.
o      Provide global and regional leadership on refugee protection
o      Invest in refugees for long term success.

·      Build officially on the constructive  “Track 2 dialogues” that have been developed under the leadership of the Australian Centre for Policy Development, engaging with a range of government officials from around the Pacific region, refugee experts, international agencies  and people form think tanks,  all meeting as private individuals to  explore   ways of addressing  the refugee problem humanely in our part of the world.

For nearly two decades, since the “Tampa affair”, the Australian political debate about refugees  and asylum seekers has been debased  by slogans, point scoring and demonisation  of those  who have sought our protection.  Please, Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese, let’s return to a refugee policy of which we can all be proud.

Bob Douglas is a retired public health academic and a Director of Australia21.  He co-edited a  2013 Australia21 essay volume  on “Refugees and Asylum Seekers: Finding a Better Way”  and  chaired  a Roundtable at Parliament House, “Beyond the Boats, Building an Asylum and Refugee Policy for the Long Term” in 2014,  cosponsored by  Australia21, The Kaldor Centre and The Centre for Policy Development.   Both reports can be downloaded from

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