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Media Release: New UNHCR refugee figures highlight need for serious rethinking of Australian policy

Australia must turn its focus from harsh deterrence policies to positive and solutions-focused diplomacy if it is to have any influence on the growing global trend of forced displacement, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) says.

Responding to new global statistics for 2018 released today by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR, RCOA chief executive Paul Power said much more constructive leadership was needed from Australia and other countries if the world is to make a difference to the lives of refugees searching for basic protection.

UNHCR’s 2018 Global Trends report shows that the number of refugees and people seeking asylum increased by 1 million during 2018 to 29.4 million – 25.9 million refugees and 3.5 million people seeking asylum. In addition, 41.5 million people are forcibly displaced inside their own countries, an increase of 1.5 million on the previous year.

Mr Power said the number of refugees and people seeking asylum continued to grow because so few refugees were finding effective solutions for their displacement. Fewer than 600,000 refugees were able to return home in safety in 2018 and the number of refugees resettled globally was just 92,400, the lowest number for six years and less than half the 189,000 refugees resettled in 2016.

“In Australia and many other countries, we see political leaders scaremongering about movements of refugees and yet doing too little to offer constructive alternatives for refugees who cannot find protection,” Mr Power said.

“The resettlement of 12,700 refugees to Australia was a helpful contribution but far too modest given Australia’s capacity and global needs. We cannot collectively promote resettlement as a serious durable solution when fewer than 0.4 per cent of the world’s refugees had access to resettlement in 2018.

“Australia should be working with other nations to reverse the dramatic reduction in refugee resettlement over the past two years but needs to do much more to work with other nations to find alternative solutions for refugees.

“For years, RCOA has been appealing to the Australian Government to focus some serious diplomatic attention on what Australia can do to support improvements to the reception and treatment of refugees in nations across the Asia-Pacific region.

“It is in Australia’s interest to see refugees better protected in countries where they first seek help, as the lack of legal status, constant fear of arrest and detention and the lack of the right to work legally in many countries across Asia are at the heart of the fears which motivate refugees to keep moving and seeking greater safety.

“Instead of using diplomatic skills and humanitarian assistance to try to improve the situation, the Australian Government has given its policy leadership to the Department of Home Affairs which focuses on policies of deterrence, detention and deflection of responsibility, policies which make matters much worse for refugees in Asia. The time for a serious resetting of Australia’s international refugee policy is long overdue.

“In refugee communities in Australia and across Asia, there are many constructive ideas about how to improve protection standards for people who have fled persecution. Many of these do not require grand multilateral agreements but incremental improvements to refugees’ legal status, right to work, access to health and education and alternatives to detention.

“Many political leaders in Australia tell us about how concerned they are to protect the lives of refugees who might embark on dangerous boat journeys and yet we see so little of that concern translated into action to address the desperation which compels refugees to keep moving in search of safety.

“Following its re-election, the Morrison Government is in a position where it can, if it chooses to do so, turn its attention to a more constructive and effective longer term strategy to address the needs of refugees in the region.

“RCOA, our colleagues in the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, refugee community leaders and others in civil society are ready to contribute constructive ideas as soon as that shift in thinking begins.”

Media enquiries: Laura Stacey 0488 035 535

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