Refugee Council of Australia
Rohingya refugees sitting in front of colourful rugs

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

Building a positive vision for the future

Contents

A longer term vision for the Asia Pacific region

In June 2014, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN) launched a regional vision for the protection of refugees, people seeking asylum and stateless people, the result of two years of wide consultation across the region. This vision details principles relating to: freedom from violence and exploitation; access to essential services and livelihoods; legal protection; durable solutions; self-sufficiency; and partnerships between governments, NGOs, UNHCR and other actors.

RCOA’s 10 steps towards improving refugee protection in the region

Since 2012, RCOA has been advocating for an incremental process of change in the Asia-Pacific region, which would begin with the most pressing needs of refugees and move gradually towards an agreed and common regional strategy to protect refugees. We have outlined 10 steps which could be taken in any order, country by country, as opportunities arise:

  1. Removing current barriers to existing refugee determination processes
  2. Creating space for and supporting NGOs to provide vital services to refugees and people seeking asylum
  3. Granting people seeking asylum legal permission to remain while refugee status is determined
  4. Developing alternatives to immigration detention
  5. Granting refugees and people seeking asylum the right to work
  6. Providing access to basic government services, including education and health
  7. Providing refugees with access to durable solutions
  8. Developing national asylum legislation
  9. Promoting ratification of the Refugee Convention, and
  10. Building greater regional consistency in asylum processes and protection strategies, supported by equitable sharing of responsibility for refugees, based on national capacity.

Reasons to believe change is possible

While it is undeniable that many refugees in the region face extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the picture is not universally bleak. There are some small signs of hope, with constructive initiatives of different states in the region providing positive examples when advocating for incremental improvements in living conditions for refugees.

  • In Iran, refugees officially have access to primary and secondary education and basic healthcare and those between 18 and 60 can access temporary work permits.
  • Pakistan affords many refugees a level of legal protection through Proof of Registration cards
  • India generally does not restrict refugees’ freedom of movement and in 2012 allowed refugees to apply for Long Term Visas which can provide access to tertiary education.
  • In Thailand, refugee and asylum seeker children in urban areas officially are able to attend school under the national “education for all” policy, though there are significant gaps in its implementation.
  • The Philippines acceded to the Refugee Convention in 1981 and three years ago introduced a new status determination procedure for refugees and stateless people.
  • In Hong Kong, the government refrains from detention and issues “recognisance papers” to refugees allowing them to live in the community. Since 2013, the government has also taken over refugee status determination from UNHCR under its “Unified Screening Mechanism”.
  • In South Korea, tireless advocacy efforts have resulted in the development of a national refugee law which was enacted 2013 making it the first country in East Asia to take this step.

Australia’s potential positive levers of influence

Despite Australia’s international reputation on matters of refugee protection being at an historic low, Australia still has positive levers of influence which it could use if it chose to do so.

  • Refugee resettlement: Over the past 40 years, Australia has done much to support nations in the region through its resettlement program. In the five years to June 2014, Australia issued resettlement visas to 23,536 refugees from Asia, most of them relocating from Malaysia, Thailand, Nepal, Pakistan and India. This gives Australia a positive platform on which to engage these states in constructive dialogue about how to improve the protection of refugees who haven’t been resettled. Australia can also bring other resettlement states, particularly the United States and Canada, into these discussions.
  • Overseas aid: Despite the massive cuts in the past two years to its overseas aid program, Australia is still a significant funder of refugee protection strategies in the region, primarily through UNHCR and IOM. The Australian Government could choose to use its aid program more strategically to support new regional and local initiatives (government, NGO, UNHCR and IOM) which enhance refugee protection.
  • Diplomatic action: Working for improvements in human rights conditions in countries of origin – seeking to address issues of displacement at their source – is critical to a comprehensive and effective regional strategy. While not wishing to overstate what can be achieved, Australia still retains sufficient international credibility to play a constructive role, if it is prepared to move beyond a seemingly singular obsession with preventing people movement and shift focus to the persecution and abuses which prompt refugees to move.
  • Sharing expertise: NGOs and government agencies in Australia have considerable expertise, built up over several decades, on many issues of refugee status determination, protection, settlement and engagement with refugee communities. This expertise not only gives Australia significant credibility in regional discussions but could be shared as part of strategies to support the development of new protection initiatives.

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