Australia’s problems with asylum seekers and refugees are not unique. We are not the only point of destination. There are around 30,000 in Australia, over 160,000 in Canada, 51,000 in Austria, 22,000 in Belgium, 74,000 in Netherlands with a population much less than ours, nearly 150,000 in the United Kingdom and 589,000 in Germany. There is a massive move of a similar kind to Europe. We are not the only destination. It is a worldwide problem which requires regional and international cooperation. We cannot ‘fix’ it on our own.
Asylum seeker and refugee movements by their very nature involve at least two countries – the country of origin and the country of destination. It will also invariably involve transit countries. Almost all asylum seekers seeking entry to Australia come in transit through Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia.
If we want to solve our problems, we must help other countries to solve their problems. There is no solution for Australia alone. Mandatory detention that we unilaterally introduced in 1992 is just not working to deter asylum seekers. The harsh deterrent measures introduced initially by Howard, but continued by the current government are cruel, horrendously expensive and are still unable to match the terror from which people flee. When the current government stopped assessing asylum seekers in October last year, over 90% of boat people from Sri Lanka were proven to be refugees. When will we learn from our mistakes?
There are two essential elements to regional cooperation and burden-sharing. The first element is that transit countries and particularly in our case, Indonesia, being prepared to hold and assist in the processing of asylum seekers. The second element is that resettlement countries must be prepared to promptly resettle people after they have been processed and found to be refugees.
These two elements were the keys to what most people now regard as the successful management of the 1.3 million Indochinese who fled after the fall of Saigon in 1975. Building regional cooperation then was a slow and painstaking process. It was messy at times but it worked.
Alongside those two essential elements, we need to keep several other factors in mind.
- Transit countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia carry the heavy burden of about 800,000 people of concern to the UNHCR.
- The US was a key player in leading the management of the Indochina outflow in the late 1970s and 1980s. It has now just joined the Bali process.
- There were few regional signatories to the Refugee Convention in the 1970s and 1980s. That is still the case today. Our experience was that the participation of the UNHCR with its experience and credibility is essential in any regional processing and resettlement.
- With our position on the Security Council, we should be working to gain greater UN support and to spearhead a campaign to get more countries to sign on to the principles of UNHCR.
- Regional countries will need financial support to manage the processing of large numbers of asylum seekers whilst they are in their countries. Their own populations are likely to be disturbed by large numbers of asylum seekers. We are wasting huge sums through our policies of deterrence and detention, in places like Manus Island and Nauru. It would be money better spent helping regional countries. Under the Comprehensive Plan of Action which developed during the Indochina outflow, Japan resettled few refugees, but it was a generous funder.
- Alongside the US, Canada would need to be a key participant in an energised Bali process.
- Australian governments up to this point have not pursued a truly regional solution involving sufficient countries, including some beyond the region, with sufficient energy.
- Other resettlement countries should contribute according to their ability and means. For example in the Indochina resettlement program, Sweden took a large number of handicapped people. As a small country it was uniquely placed to help in this way.
- Australia will need to lift its resettlement intake above the 20,000 p.a. at the moment. This would assist in giving us creditability in persuading other people to participate.
- In particular, we will need to take many more from Indonesia which so far we have not done. This is critical to gain Indonesian cooperation which would be essential for a successful outcome.
I am not sure that the meeting called by President Yudhoyono will provide a breakthrough. It could however be an important building block in the development of a robust regional arrangement based on burden-sharing with the two key elements I mentioned earlier.
Only regional cooperation will work. We learned that the hard way during the Indochina outflow. Unilateral action and the posturing that goes with it will not succeed. What we need is good policy and less politics. We need to restore the bipartisanship that had existed between the end of the 2nd War and the middle 1980s. Good policy can only be built around regional cooperation.