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

Moving to immediate action


Constructive bilateral action to improve refugee protection

As we have seen, large multilateral forums like the Bali Process are unlikely to provide any significant impetus for change in the region. Refugees need much more than the occasional positive paragraph in an official communique. The changes which refugees are desperate to see are much more likely to come through constructive action between two, three or four states working in partnership with UNHCR and NGOs to tackle pressing refugee protection problems together. With sufficient political will, action can begin immediately.

Priority must be given to the issues which are most problematic for refugees and people seeking asylum – often the most basic issues such as access to adequate food and shelter, freedom from detention, legal status, timely access to a refugee status determination process, the right to work and access to health care and education. 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.

Identifying priority needs

Any strategy which aims to respond to refugee needs in a particular country must be based on consultation with the refugees and people seeking asylum themselves. NGOs which work with refugees and people seeking asylum are ideally placed to take the lead in credible and independent community consultation processes. Information gathered by NGOs to date indicates that the most pressing concerns of refugees and people seeking asylum, country by country, include:

  • Indonesia: lack of legal status for refugees and people seeking asylum, the widespread use of immigration detention, lack of access to adequate food and shelter for many people seeking asylum and refugees, limited freedom of movement and the lack of work rights.
  • Malaysia: lack of legal status for refugees and people seeking asylum, the lack of work rights, delays in access to UNHCR’s refugee status determination process, the constant risk of arrest and detention and the lack of access to education and affordable health care.
  • Thailand: the high risk of arrest and detention for urban refugees, the lack of access to registration for many camp-based refugees, the lack of work rights and denial of freedom of movement.
  • Cambodia: the very limited access to employment, education, health and other basic services for refugees and the refoulement in recent years of Uighir refugees to China and ethnic Montagnards to Vietnam.
  • Bangladesh: the lack of access to registration or refugee status determination for most refugees, refoulement and pushbacks at the Bangladesh-Burma border, the widespread use of detention, the lack of work rights, no freedom of movement, no access to secondary education and the denial of access to resettlement.
  • Sri Lanka: the high risk of refoulement (385 people seeking asylum forcibly returned in 2014), the use of detention and the lack of work rights.
  • Nepal: the lack of work rights and the imposition of hefty overstay visa fines (which serve as an obstacle to departure from Nepal through voluntary repatriation or resettlement).
  • Pakistan: personal security for refugees (particularly in Balochistan), the lack of registration for many Afghans in the country, concerns about whether Proof of Registration cards will be extended beyond December 2015, the lack of official right to work and limited access to education.
  • Iran: lack of access to the Amayesh refugee registration process since 2001, restrictions on freedom of movement, involuntary return and conditions in immigration detention.

Australia cleaning up its act

As Australia recognises that it has so much to gain by seeing refugees better protected across Asia, it will become clear that Australia cannot credibly advocate for change while maintaining policies which harm people seeking asylum and refugees. In the treatment of people seeking asylum and refugees in Australia or those sent to Papua New Guinea, Nauru or Cambodia, Australia will need to ensure that it is applying the standards it would wish to see applied elsewhere, including:

  1. A fair refugee status determination process, with access to information, interpretation, free or affordable legal advice, prompt assessment of claims and independent review.
  2. Freedom from detention, making full use of detention alternatives.
  3. Giving all people seeking asylum the right to work.
  4. Ensuring all people seeking asylum have access to critical services, including adequate shelter, physical and mental health care and education.
  5. Access to durable solutions, providing permanent protection and sustainable living conditions for recognised refugees and removing obstacles to family reunion.

Any effort by Australia to encourage more equitable sharing of responsibility for refugee protection will be significantly undermined by the current policies of forced turnbacks of asylum seeker boats, screening applicants out of the asylum process without any external scrutiny or opportunity for appeal and the forced removal of people seeking asylum to poorer neighbouring countries. Australia must recognise that these policies are unsustainable because, if these policies were copied around the globe, international access to asylum would cease to exist.

Building positive partnerships between governments, NGOs and inter-governmental bodies Effective action to address refugee protection needs in the Asia-Pacific region requires active and constructive engagement from governments, UNHCR, IOM, NGOs and refugee community organisations. The Refugee Council of Australia (with its network of 200 member organisations across Australia) and the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (with more than 200 members across 26 nations) are ready at any time to work constructively with any government or inter-governmental body on the practical implementation of the ideas contained in this paper.

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