Refugee Council of Australia
People sleeping in jumble

Intake submission on Australia’s 2013-2014 refugee and humanitarian program

Refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific

Participants in RCOA’s community consultations highlighted ongoing violence, insecurity and persecution in the region’s major countries of origin for refugees (including Burma and Sri Lanka) and insecurity and harassment in countries of asylum such as Pakistan and Syria. These concerns match those raised by NGOs in the region who spoke of the continuing focus of governments on border control, the high risk of detention and limited access to legal protection for people seeking asylum. Concern was also expressed about the difficulties faced by people seeking asylum in getting access to UNHCR and the timeliness of its responses. The difficulties faced by UNHCR in operating in countries where it is barely tolerated were also noted. Refugees on the Thai-Burma border spoke of their fears that they may be forced to return Burma well before conditions have changed sufficiently for them to be able to live in safety and freedom.

Across the region, refugees are seeking to have their most basic protection needs met – access to refugee status determination, legal permission to remain where they are, freedom from detention, adequate food and shelter, the right to work, freedom from violence and access to justice, access to physical and mental health care, access to education and access to a timely durable solution. When there is no durable solution in sight and refugees have endured years without some or many of these needs being met, onward movement becomes the most viable option available.

Developments relating to regional cooperation on refugee protection through the Bali Process during 2012 have centred on the establishment of the Regional Support Office (RSO) in Bangkok and the start of work on the Office’s foundation projects, including the development of standard operating procedures on voluntary repatriation and a mapping exercise on the treatment of unaccompanied and separated children in South-East Asia. The RSO was originally conceived as a mechanism to support the operationalisation of the Regional Cooperation Framework (RCF) agreed to by Bali Process members in March 2011. Progress on the development of the RCF has been slow and needs to pick up pace significantly if it is to meet some of the most pressing needs of refugees and people seeking asylum in the region. RCOA encourages the Australian Government to seek opportunities for the greater participation of civil society in the Bali Process following the acknowledgement at the Bali Process meeting in November 2012 of the potential role of civil society in policy development.

The greater focus of the Australian Government on capacity building in the region following the Expert Panel report is a welcome step. However, the reintroduction of offshore processing is likely to damage prospects for a constructive regional framework for refugee protection through modelling the deflection of responsibility for people seeking asylum to other countries. Australia’s promotion in the region of immigration detention and interception has contributed to a decline in the security situation for refugees in South-East Asia, adding to the factors which lead many refugees to seek greater protection elsewhere (most particularly in Australia).

Despite these concerns, Australia is still seen in the region as a country which is better placed than most to promote serious regional discussion about refugee protection and to bring resettlement nations to the table to discuss the role that increased resettlement support could play in brokering support for serious steps towards refugee protection. Two countries who should be encouraged to contribute constructively to improved refugee protection are New Zealand and Canada which have demonstrated their fears about onward movement in the region by introducing legislation to deal with perceived threats of “mass arrivals”. In providing leadership on refugee protection in the region,

Australia must, in its own policy, model the protection safeguards needed across the region. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, a regional model for refugee protection must include “the right to asylum and respect for the principle of non-refoulement; humane reception conditions, including protection against prolonged and arbitrary detention; and access to basic rights such as education, health care, and employment [and] special support for vulnerable people.”

Despite the difficult conditions across the region for refugees and people seeking asylum, there are some signs of hope. Examples include: successful efforts to bail refugees out of immigration detention in Thailand; a new executive order in India which offers refugees access to long-term stay visas and the right to work; new refugee legislation in South Korea and preliminary thinking on refugee legislation in several other Asian countries; and the potential for a system of regional citizenship in South-East Asia.

Progress towards improved refugee protection will inevitably be incremental, with ratification of the Refugee Convention a long-term goal in most countries. A process over a decade or more could include the following 10 steps:

  1. Removing current barriers to existing refugee determination processes;
  2. Creating space for and supporting NGOs to provide vital services to refugees;
  3. Granting legal permission to remain while refugee status is determined;
  4. Developing alternatives to immigration detention;
  5. Granting 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 regional consistency in asylum processes.

The pace of movement on regional cooperation is slow and more momentum is required, not only to get governments more actively involved in discussing the protection of refugees but also to involve a broader range of civil society representatives. The dialogue must move – and be seen to move – well beyond the interests of the Australian Government to include concerns across South East Asia and also South Asia, involving governments such as Pakistan and Bangladesh in discussions about the refugee needs they face in their territories. The March 2013 meeting of the Bali Process and the regional workshop on irregular migration by sea create opportunities to broaden the refugee protection dialogue and also to explore how civil society perspectives can be included in the discussion. One idea worth considering would be the formation of sub-regional eminent persons groups in South Asia and in South-East Asia to consider ways of addressing protection needs – an initiative probably best led by UNHCR.

The Australian Government’s focus on capacity building of NGOs in the region is welcome. There are pressing needs to support NGOs involved in supporting refugees and people seeking asylum through education, health, legal advice, development of refugee leaders, support for unaccompanied minors, support programs for women and children, detention monitoring and release and community-based alternatives to detention. In addition, there is great capacity to build stronger partnerships between NGOs across borders, supporting frontline services with international expertise. Capacity building is also needed for government officials in the region, particularly in refugee status determination and the development of detention alternatives.

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