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The Refugee Council of Australia has always taken a principled stand against offshore processing. Our view has always been that the policy is cruel and inhumane, and that its human and financial cost can neither be justified nor sustained. We have also consistently maintained the view that boat turnbacks should be abandoned as a matter of urgency.

Our views on the path beyond offshore processing, however, are less well-known. This short paper explains our existing recommendations in some of our key reports, including: Australia’s response to a world in crisis (March 2016, ‘Australia’s response’), Eroding our identity as a generous nation: Community views on Australia’s treatment of people seeking asylum (December 2015, ‘Eroding our identity’) and Improving Refugee Protection in Asia-Pacific: How Australia can make a practical difference (July 2015, ‘Improving refugee protection’).

Improving protection elsewhere

Take practical steps now to improve the protection of people seeking asylum and refugees in the Asia-Pacific

People who arrive by boat in Australia typically move on from a country in Asia. They do so because in Asia, they live marginal lives. Refugees in these countries typically do not have a formal legal status and are unable to work legally, own or rent property, send their children to school or access basic services such as health care. This also places them at risk of harassment, exploitation, detention and deportation.

We would begin with the most pressing needs of refugees and move gradually towards an agreed and common regional strategy to protect refugees. Some practical steps we could take now would include: making it easier to access procedures to determine refugee status; creating space for and supporting NGOs to provide vital services to refugees and asylum seekers; making sure that people can eat, work and live legally, and are not detained; and making sure they can access education and health services. If refugees are able to get their most pressing needs met, they are much more likely to remain where they are while durable solutions are developed.

Other steps can be taken to improve the protection of people in the region, at the same or different times. These include: providing refugees with access to durable solutions; developing national asylum legislation; promoting ratification of the Refugee Convention; and building greater regional consistency in asylum processes and protection strategies, supported by equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees, based on national capacity. A key priority should be the development of a regional strategy for the protection of Rohingya refugees

Developing an integrated response to protecting refugees

How can Australia influence the development of better protection in our region? Although our credibility is very low, we do have some positive levers of influence. This includes: our program of resettling refugees from countries in Asia (including Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan and India); our foreign aid program which (although much reduced) largely benefits Asian countries; our diplomatic relationships; and decades of expertise in refugee protection among Australian NGOs and government agencies.

Australia should use these levers to develop a response to refugee protection that starts well before people come to our shores. Our foreign aid could help countries build capacity, promote reconciliation and help better protect displaced people. Through diplomacy, we could help promote peace and improve the prospects of voluntary return, and encourage resettlement states to work together to promote durable solutions.

What is required is for the Australian Government to work across its various agencies to develop an integrated response that includes the roles of aid, diplomacy, capacity-building and resettlement. To begin that process, the Australian Government should convene a forum across all relevant departments, together with NGOs, peak bodies, intergovernmental bodies and other stakeholders.

Increase protection in other ways

We are in the middle of a global humanitarian crisis. Australia, as a rich country with a long history and expertise in resettlement, can and should do more. Making it easier and less dangerous for people to find safety should be a priority.

Increase existing programs

A simple step would be to increase gradually the number of places available to people under Australia’s existing programs to 30,000 places in the next four years. Australia should also continue to allocate an additional 10,000 places for the crises in Syria and Iraq over the next three years.

Find alternative pathways to protection

Australia could also significantly expand the existing pilot program for Australian organisations and families to privately sponsor people in need. We could also allocate at least 5,000 places for people in Australia to be reunited with their family through the general migration program and also introduce some concessions that currently make it difficult for them to access this program. The Australian government should also convene a forum to examine other opportunities through our general migration program to offer places to people who could be eligible for other streams of our migration program, such as people with skills in high demand or students.