A leading group of non-government organisations and experts in the refugee and asylum seeker sector, including the Human Rights Law Centre, has made a major submission to the Government's Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. The group recognises and accepts the need to reduce the number of people risking their lives on precarious sea journeys to Australia. However, we know from experience that the current policies, based on deterrence, don’t work. The terror in which refugees flee cannot be matched by anything we do. Our focus is on humanitarian policy options that are effective, sustainable, responsive and consistent with Australia’s international obligations.
Unlike our political leaders we don’t pretend that any one approach will “stop the boats”. Nor do we support the view that domestic policies alone will impact on irregular movement. We believe instead that we need to shift our policy objective to focus on:
- substantially reducing, at source, the incentive for asylum seekers to engage people smuggling networks and make dangerous boat journeys to Australia;
- improving protections for asylum seekers in our region; and
- ensuring Australia fulfills its international human rights obligations.
Current policy options will not work
We do not support any of the policy options currently before Parliament. This is because we believe they are harsh, unjust and contrary to our international obligations. Furthermore, the current policy approaches, outlined below, will not achieve their stated aim to reduce asylum seekers seeking out people smugglers and travelling to Australia by boat.
Return to the ‘Pacific Solution’
Re-opening a Detention Centre on Nauru or Manus Island will not be an effective deterrent to asylum seekers seeking to come to Australia on boats. It is well known that the majority of asylum seekers formerly processed in Nauru and Manus Islandwere resettled in Australia or New Zealand. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) welcomed the closure of the Nauru Offshore Processing Centre in 2008.
Return to Temporary Protection Visas
Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) did not deter boat arrivals when they were first introduced and will not be an effective deterrent now. It is well known that vast majority of people granted TPVs were subsequently granted a permanent protection visa. Because TPVs did not provide family reunification rights, greater numbers of women and children were encouraged to take boats to Australia.
Turning boats around
Turning boats around is difficult and dangerous, putting both asylum seekers and border security personnel in danger and leading to more deaths at sea. Turning boats around and sending them back to their point of departure or a third party country is not constructive. Indonesia has repeatedly indicated that turning boats back is unacceptable.
The Malaysia Arrangement is not a long-term or even medium-term solution. Malaysia has a well documented history of ill-treatment towards asylum seekers and refugees and the Malaysia Arrangement undermines compliance withAustralia’s international law obligations. Many operational aspects of the Arrangement are insufficient and the proposed management of unaccompanied minors remains unclear.
Alternate Policy Options
Irregular migration is an international issue which cannot be solved by one country acting in isolation. As has successfully occurred in the past, Australia must work with our regional neighbours to encourage the protection and orderly management of irregular migrants in our region.
We recommend focusing on long term and medium solutions within our region, in addition to making immediate changes to Australia’s approach to asylum seekers.
Immediate initiatives should focus on measures to provide greater incentive for asylum seekers to utilise orderly migration procedures, rather than seek out the services of people smugglers, and to enhance maritime rescue operations to avert loss of life at sea. Immediate recommendations include:
- Doubling Australia’s annual humanitarian intake, to offer additional places for vulnerable refugees within the region and to target programs in key source countries.
- Encouraging other governments to increase their commitment to resettlement.
- Increasing resources to UNHCR in our region.
- Increasing regional cooperation to avert loss of life at sea.
Medium term strategies:
Medium term strategies are practical suggestions which the Government should adopt to demonstrate its commitment to a regional approach to asylum seeker and refugee issues. These include:
- Assisting regional neighbours to create conditions of safety for asylum seekers while their protection claims are assessed in a timely manner.
- Reviewing the current composition of Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program.
- Promoting accession to the Refugee Convention within our region.
Long term and sustainable regional framework:
Sustained and genuine long term commitment is required to build a regional protection framework. The Bali Process’ Regional Cooperation Framework offers a suitable platform for these efforts and the Australian Government should work to enhance the protection elements which underpin it.
To understand how to stop people getting on boats, we need to understand what drives people to risk their lives at sea. People get on boats because they have no other choice. As a group representative of people working directly with asylum seekers, we have been told time and time again by people on the ground who are going through the process in Malaysia and Indonesia, that boats are the only option compared to imprisonment, torture and persecution: "I would rather die seeking freedom, than at the hands of my oppressors".
These policy options are supported by the asylum seeker and refugee sector, ensure we meet our international obligations, are practical to implement on the ground in Australia and our region and, most importantly, will save lives at sea.
We have come together as group to present these solutions for consideration by the Expert Panel to ensure, above else, the protection of asylum seekers by Australia as a proud signatory of the Refugee Convention.
The Hon Malcolm Fraser AC CH