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conference tableWith global displacement at record levels, a real public debate on refugee protection is sorely needed. Aiming to explore concrete, principled strategies, the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law convened a two-day Expert Roundtable at the University of New South Wales in September 2016. Those participating including civil society representatives, academics and representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The Refugee Council of Australia also attended.

The Centre’s report, ‘Where to from here?’, summarises those discussions. While participants discussed Australia’s policies of deterrence, the focus was on exploring Australia’s role in regional protection.

Australia’s offshore processing regime

Participants broadly agreed that offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island was unsustainable and that there was an urgent need for ‘long-term and appropriate solutions’ for all those currently detained there.

So, barring a change in government policy, what could an exit strategy look like? In discussing this, participants supported the development of a ‘suite of options’ including:

  • some limited local integration in Nauru and PNG
  • settlement options in Australia, particularly where families had been separated, and
  • resettlement in other countries that meet minimum standards of protection and support.

The report also notes that any resolution should consider the ‘unprecedented levels of mental health problems’ among people detained on Nauru and PNG and that their health needs should be addressed ‘in a place where the appropriate professional expertise and capacity were already well-established.’

‘Turn back’ and ‘take-back’ practices

The Roundtable expressed concern at the secrecy surrounding Australia’s practice of intercepting people seeking asylum at sea and either escorting them back into international waters (‘turn-backs’) or transferring them to the authority of their country of departure (‘take-backs’). Participants expressed ‘strong doubts’ that these practices complied with international human rights and refugee law.

Broader measures discussed to address irregular migration included:

  • the use of strategic resettlement
  • ‘early interception’ including identifying and registering people seeking asylum as soon as possible after their arrival in the country, and
  • the establishment of a regional responsibility-sharing mechanism.

Towards a regional protection system

The Roundtable noted that any effective regional cooperation framework on refugees should:

  • Be grounded in a commitment to genuine responsibility-sharing
  • Ensure refugee status determination and temporary stay arrangements are linked with work rights and durable solutions
  • Be sustainable and subject to effective oversight, and
  • Balance established protection mechanisms with the flexibility to respond to emergency situations.

Everyone agreed that advancing cooperation on refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific was a complex undertaking that would involve the collective, long-term input of governments, civil society and other organizations in the region. Possible ‘next steps’ included:

  • Strengthening and building upon existing human rights architecture such as the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration and other relevant international treaties
  • Promoting pilot programs focused on smaller groups of people in need of protection, and
  • Establishing bilateral or trilateral measures on refugee protection to gradually build toward greater multilateral cooperation.

Alternative migration pathways

What can we do to increase opportunities for people to access protection in countries such as Australia?

The Roundtable discussed possible options outside traditional resettlement programs including private or community sponsorship, and ‘protection-sensitive’ migration pathways including skilled labour, student or family migration schemes for people in need of protection.

Participants largely saw these alternative pathways as valuable complements to the resettlement program, with possible mutual benefits.