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Improving refugee protection in Asia-Pacific: How Australia can make a practical difference

For several years, government and civil society representatives and academics have been discussing the need for Asia-Pacific regional cooperation to improve the protection of refugees. It is most often raised as a longer term alternative to address the factors which push people seeking asylum on to dangerous boat journeys.

How realistic is this idea? What would it involve and where would we start? In this brief discussion paper, developed with input from the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, we argue that not only is it essential for Australia to be involved in this form of regional cooperation, but it can start now with constructive bilateral steps to achieve immediate improvements in the lives of refugees.

Why Australia must take a more constructive approach

Global displacement at a 70-year high

While Australia has been closing its borders to people seeking asylum on boats and cutting its annual Refugee and Humanitarian Program by nearly one third, the world’s forced displacement crisis has been growing considerably. As 2015 began, global displacement reached its highest level since the end of World War II, with 59.5 million people forcibly displaced, including 19.5 million refugees and 1.8 million people seeking asylum. In 2014, 42,500 people were newly displaced every day.

The number of people forcibly displaced grew by 16 million in just four years, due to the emergence of new crises (most notably the conflict in Syria) and the deterioration of existing crises. By contrast, Australia’s share of responsibility for refugee protection has decreased. Of the refugees who received some form of protection in 2010 (through recognition of refugee status or resettlement), 2.3% found that protection in Australia. By 2014, this figure had decreased to 0.43%. Similarly, Australia received 1.04% of the asylum applications lodged in 2010 but only 0.24% in 2014.

Refugees’ desperate search for enduring protection

More than half of the world’s refugees live in just eight countries and 86% are in developing nations. Lebanon, a country of just 4.5 million people with territory nine times smaller than Tasmania, is now hosting 1.2 million Syrian refugees. Where some countries struggle to meet their obligations towards refugees, others simply do not accept these obligations. In Asia, few countries are signatories to the Refugee Convention and most lack legal and administrative frameworks for determining refugee status or providing protection.

Refugees in these countries typically do not have a formal legal status (even if they have been recognised as refugees by UNHCR) and are unable to work legally, own or rent property, send their children to school or access basic services such as health care. The lack of status also places them at risk of harassment, exploitation, detention and deportation. In other situations, refugees find that the insecurity they have fled has followed them – a prime example being Afghan Hazaras targeted by the Taliban in Pakistan’s Balochistan province.

Compelling need for better collective answers

As persecution and conflict have proliferated and the opportunities for refugees to find effective and enduring protection have become more limited, we have increasingly seen refugees and people seeking asylum moving beyond their country of first asylum in search of protection elsewhere, often undertaking perilous journeys facilitated by smugglers or traffickers. This has been seen perhaps most dramatically in Europe, where around 150,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean in the first six months of 2015 (with close to 2,000 people losing their lives in the process).

In two years since mid 2013, more than 100,000 people have fled across the Bay of Bengal and Andaman Sea, many of them Rohingya refugees fleeing systemic persecution in Burma and abysmal protection conditions in Bangladesh. In the face of these challenges, there has been a growing recognition of the need for better collective answers to forced displacement.

Australia’s declining international influence

Australia’s capacity to influence international discussions about refugee protection has declined considerably as the Australian Government’s response to people seeking asylum has become harsher. All mainstream conservative and social democratic parties across Europe have rejected suggestions that Australian-style policies of turnbacks of refugees, mandatory detention or forced removal to third countries are appropriate responses (morally, legally or practically) to the growing numbers of people entering Europe from the Middle East and North Africa.

In South-East Asia, as the region responded in May to an increase in the number of boats of desperate people on the Andaman Sea, public and political opinion swung against suggestions that Australia’s advocacy for boat turnbacks was acceptable. Despite its long and positive record on refugee resettlement, Australia is increasingly being seen as a wealthy nation interested primarily in rejecting its responsibilities to people seeking asylum, pursuing unsustainable policies which place greater pressure on poorer neighbours and foment resentment towards Australia.

Ultimately, all fair-minded Australians would agree that it is in everyone’s best interests to find constructive alternatives for refugees who see embarking on dangerous journeys as their best hope for protection and freedom. The only sensible and sustainable course for Australia is to support policies which improve the protection of refugees as close to their country of origin as possible, encouraging and, where feasible, leading international cooperation to share responsibility with nations in the forefront of refugee movements.

Understanding that refugee resettlement is only part of the answer

In much of the discussion about refugee protection in Australia, there is an assumption that resettlement is the only viable and durable solution for refugees in the Asia-Pacific region. Because less than 1% of the world’s refugees are resettled in any year, most refugees have no real chance of being resettled. Many would, in fact, prefer to live in safety close to their country of origin, in the hope that they may be able to return one day. UNHCR speaks of three durable solutions for refugees: safe voluntary return to the country of origin when the threat of persecution has ended, integration in the country of asylum (including, where possible, permanency and citizenship) and resettlement to a third country.

The goal of effective regional cooperation should be to make all three durable solutions much more widely available – by working (where possible) to seek change in countries of origin, encouraging greater opportunities for integration in countries of asylum and strategising to expand global opportunities for refugee resettlement. The capacity of countries of asylum to provide integration opportunities will vary, with much greater opportunities in Malaysia and Thailand (now classified by the World Bank as upper middle income economies and both net importers of labour) than in nations such as Indonesia, the Philippines or Bangladesh.

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