The Refugee Council of Australia’s call for more affordable and community based ways of settling refugees is only the latest attempt to bring both community good will to refugees and the implementation of a proven and superior alternative to government processes.
It worked well in Australia in the 1980s and ‘90s. It still works in Canada, as the leader of the Refugee Council Paul Power found on a recent visit there.
I say the “latest” call because some people have been trying to get the process of community based resettlement that was suspended in Australia in 1996 reactivated now. Personally, I approached both of our recent prime ministers to no avail.
Tony Abbott didn’t even know it was a Coalition policy introduced by the Fraser Government. Maybe that was the problem. Malcolm Turnbull welcomed the proposal, sought a briefing but, like Tony, did absolutely nothing.
I formed the clear conviction they just don’t care. And the Department of Immigrations and Border Protection is even worse. Repeated representations to the Department and its Secretary and senior officers were to no avail.
So, off to Canada for me. There the same scheme introduced almost four decades ago still thrives and is at the basis of Canada’s generosity to refugees, especially from the Middle East. I materially and personally support some 50 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers with the generous assistance of some of my friends in Australia who supply the funds.
The Pakistanis fled their homeland for Bangkok – one of the few places Pakistanis could get tourist visas to enter, but no longer – after death threats and some with attempted murder at the hands of the Taliban. Most have been in Bangkok for four years, some five or six waiting to have their interviews with the UNHCR and their refugees status formalized.
And that’s where their problems intensified. The backlog of cases was so great that some inspired individual employed a collection of interviewers who, almost without exception, have found the Pakistanis to have no right to refugee status.
I have seen what an appalling job these UNHCR officers have done. They have few or no language skills, a complete gap in their understanding of due process, the handling of evidence and the natural rights of their subjects of interview.
I know this in detail because I have read all their rejection notices from the UNHCR and written their appeal documents which will give them another 12 months as asylum seekers in Thailand while their appeal is considered.
The UNHCR is not only laggardly, lazy and completely unprofessional. It is clear that they are operating in sympathy with, if not at the direction of the Thai government who want to clear the country of this unwanted riff raff along with anyone else they deem undesirable irrespective of their reasons for being in the country or their use to its economy.
Two million illegal workers have fled Thailand in the last month following the government’s threats against the undocumented and their employers. The incompetent government has been forced to revise that ruling because of the importance of these workers to the functioning of the economy.
But Canada is a different matter. That country’s immigration authorities have about as much respect for the UNHCR as I do and conduct their own enquiries to establish the authenticity of refugee claims and ignore UNHCR judgements.
And the community groups – parishes, sports clubs, social groups – that they outsource settlement to conduct their own enquiries. Once selected by the community groups, the refugee applicants are presented to and interviewed by Canadian government officials.
Once accepted for settlement, the community groups do what used to happen in Australia – the refuges are found somewhere to live, jobs to go to, schools for kids to attend, community groups to join. And yes, the community based resettlement groups have to provide a C$20,000 bond for the people they settle which may or may not be used.
Twenty thousand Canadian dollars sure beats the hell out of the A$90,000 that the Australian government pockets and does not return to anyone odd enough to join the much trumpeted and poorly performing scheme the Australian government has now got in place.
Australia is underperforming in refugee resettlement because our politicians and public servants have forgotten the country’s achievements. All they have to do is look to Canada for a living example of something that works better than anything in Australia and which earlier generations in Australia actually created for us to settle hundreds of thousands of refugees who are now tax paying contributors to the Australian community.
And all it takes is for some politicians to appeal to the better angels of our spirit, to borrow from Abraham Lincoln.
Michael Kelly SJ is based in Bangkok