John Menadue. Refugees- from toxic politics to a humanitarian policy.

Jul 17, 2015

The ALP Federal conference which will be meeting in a week’s time, will be considering refugee policy along with other major issues.

I have re-posted below a post from 22 June on refugees .  

Media reports suggest that boat ‘turnbacks’ will be a contentious issue at the conference. There are several issues that I think should be kept in mind on this issue.

The first is that the dramatic drop in boat arrivals has not been due to turnbacks, but the decision by the Rudd Government announced on 13 July 2013, that any people arriving by boat in future would never be settled in Australia. That was the game-changer. Tony Abbott’s actions were quite marginal, including some turnbacks. These turnbacks had a great deal of publicity but they were not significant in curbing the flow of boats. 

Second, turnbacks should only be considered as part of a regional agreement that importantly involves Indonesia, Malaysia and the UNHCR. Unilateral turnbacks should be rejected. 

Third, the issue of turnbacks reminds us again how important it is to build trust and arrangements with regional countries. This will require considerable diplomatic effort and resources. It will take time. Unfortunately, as I mentioned in the post below, we treat regional countries as fair-weather friends and go to them when we have a problem, but turn our backs when they have a problem.  John Menadue

Refugees – from toxic politics to a humanitarian policy (repost from 22 June 2015.

The old Irish story tells of the guide who spoke to a lost Irishman. If you want to get to Dublin I wouldn’t start from here.

The same is true of refugee politics today. We are in a dreadful position at the moment but we need to be pragmatic and determined to get to a humane and generous policy.

Before looking at practical ways to an improved future for refugees, there are several things that we need to keep in mind.

First, the Australian public in my view will not support a generous refugee policy if arrivals are seen to be irregular and not under the control of the Australian government, particularly if the arrivals are being determined by people-smugglers.

Second, the generous acceptance of Indochinese refugees in Australia thirty years ago would not have been possible if we had had the arrivals of boat people that we had in Australia in 2013. At one stage, boat arrivals that year were running at the rate of close to 50,000 p.a. At the height of the outflow of over a million people from Indochina in the late 1970s and 1980s, the largest number of people arriving in Australia by boat was 1423 in 1977-78. From my experience as Secretary of the Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs from 1980, I was very conscious that a large numbers of boat arrivals would have prejudiced the Indochina program. We put a great deal of effort into minimizing and downplaying boat arrivals.

Third, the success of the Indochina program depended on two related features. The first was that countries of the region would hold asylum seekers for a period for processing on the understanding that, secondly, countries like Australia, the US, Canada and France would resettle large numbers of those refugees. It was called burden-sharing.

Fourth, the collapse of the arrangement with Malaysia triggered the dramatic increase in boat arrivals in 2012 and 2013. People-smugglers realised that there was no effective Australian counter to their activities. The collapse of that arrangement with Malaysia was the result of the collaboration and joint action in the Senate by the Coalition, the Greens and supported by major refugee advocate organisations in Australia.

Fifth, Tony Abbott did not stop the boats. As I set out in my blog of 8 December 2014 the decisive factor in stopping the boats was the decision by the Rudd Government on 13 July 2013 that no future boat arrivals would ever be settled in Australia. People arriving by boat fell from 4,145 in July 2013 to 1,591, 837, 339, 207 and 355 in subsequent months. The number had dramatically fallen by the time the Abbott government came to power. The new government attracted a lot of attention with turn-backs to Indonesia but these were really only minor operations with boat arrivals dramatically reduced by then. The decision of the Rudd Government on 13 July 2013 was the game-changer, not the Coalition rhetoric about ‘stopping the boats’. The media seems remarkably willing to accept Tony Abbott’s one-liner on the subject and refuses to examine the facts. The result of all this was Manus and Nauru. What a price we are now paying for the collapse of the arrangement with Malaysia with which the UNHCR was prepared to cooperate and which would have been an important building block in regional cooperation.

Against that background, how should we now proceed? For further background see article by Peter Hughes,Arja Keski- Nummi and myself.

The key to an acceptable future refugee arrangement is joint responsibility and burden-sharing with our regional neighbours. Countries of the region have severe problems with irregular people flows as we have seen recently in arrivals from Myanmar and Bangladesh. As co-chair with Indonesia on the Bali process, our foreign minister should have shown good faith by seeking to convene a meeting with affected regional countries to tackle people-smuggling and trafficking. But too often we are fair-weather friends with our neighbours, and show interest only when we have a problem. We say ‘nope, nope, nope’ when they have a problem We need to give high priority to building effective cooperation on refugees in the region, together with UNHCR.   It is in that context that turn-backs should be addressed and not through unilateral action.

Regional cooperation is the only long-term arrangement that makes sense. But it will take a lot of time and trust. We are not really trying at the moment. We must accept that Manus and Nauru are not sustainable in the future.

We should negotiate Orderly Departure Arrangements where possible to address problems at source. I would expect that Myanmar would be interested in Australia taking some Rohingya . Sri Lanka would also be likely to be cooperative in our taking of Tamils. In both cases the arrangements would be part of an orderly program.

We should focus part of our aid and trade programs on regional countries that have persecuted or alienated minorities.

We should increase our refugee increase to 20,000 plus. At the peak of the Indochina program we were taking about 35,000 refugees p.a., adjusted for our population increase since then.

We should consider new migration pathways, e.g. 4-5-7 Visas, for vulnerable persons. There were over 800,000 temporary entrants, excluding tourists, in Australia at 30 September 2014.

We should think again about blanket opposition to offshore processing. The important issue is not where the processing occurs, but is it fair and effective, and is it done in cooperation with UNHCR. Some years ago I was opposed to offshore processing, but I changed my mind in light of the dramatic increase in asylum numbers in 2012 and 2013 after the collapse of the Malaysian arrangement. A consequence of the collapse of that arrangement is that we are now faced with Manus and Nauru.

We should formally end mandatory detention. It was introduced by the Keating government. It is very expensive, cruel and does not deter asylum seekers. With the near-end of boat arrivals, the numbers who are in Immigration detention has declined dramatically. We should formally end mandatory detention except for detention necessary for safety, security and health checks.

We should set a time limit for the final processing of the 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived by boat and whose status has not yet been determined.

The unfortunate souls on Manus and Nauru must be treated with dignity and respect and either repatriated if found not to be refugees or resettled as soon as possible in third countries with the cooperation of UNHCR.

The key to resolving the political problem surrounding refugees is to insist that vulnerable people that we accept in future must be part of an orderly program. I see that as the best way to gain the support of the Australian community and develop refugee programs that we can again be proud of.

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