Last month’s election of a new government in Malaysia provides the perfect opportunity for the Australian Government to rethink how it can play a constructive role in working for effective answers for refugees in the Asia-Pacific region, the Refugee Council of Australia says.
Reflecting on new United Nations statistics which show that the global number of people who are now refugees is at a 70-year high, RCOA chief executive officer Paul Power said Australians and their government should not allow themselves to be overwhelmed by grim statistics but should redouble efforts to seek practical answers.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its annual Global Trends report for World Refugee Day, revealing that the world’s refugee population jumped by 2.9 million during 2017 to 25.4 million, surpassing the previous record set in 1992. UNHCR’s Global Trends report estimates the number of forcibly displaced people at the end of 2017 at 68.5 million, including 40.0 million people displaced with the borders of their country of origin, 25.4 million as refugees elsewhere and 3.1 million people still seeking asylum.
“While these statistics can overwhelm us into inaction, even with 2017’s increase, only 0.3% of the world’s people are refugees,” Mr Power said. “Finding answers is not impossible, with sufficient political will. Australia can choose to make a difference in two ways – by increasing support to the nations hosting the largest numbers of refugees and by exploring how Australia’s diplomacy, aid and practical help could make a difference in our near region.”
The world’s refugees comprise 5.2 million Palestinians in the Middle East under the care of the UN Relief and Works Agency and 19.3 million refugees globally under UNHCR’s mandate. Of these 19.3 million refugees, 68% are from just five source countries – Syria 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million, South Sudan 2.4 million, Myanmar 1.1 million and Somalia 986,000. Just 10 countries are hosting 63% of the world’s refugees – Turkey 3.4 million, Pakistan 1.39 million, Uganda 1.35 million, Lebanon 999,000, Iran 979,000, Germany 970,000, Bangladesh 932,000, Sudan 907,000, Ethiopia 889,000 and Jordan 691,000.
RCOA’s analysis of the UNHCR statistics shows that Australia’s contribution to the support of refugees is more modest. Of the 3.46 million people who had their refugee status recognised in 2017 and the 102,755 refugees who were resettled, Australia assisted 23,111 of them (0.65%). In terms of initial protection through recognition of refugee status or further protection through resettlement, Australia’s effort was 20th overall, 25th on a per capita basis and 45th relative to national Gross Domestic Product.
“Australia can and should do more to resettle refugees from countries which are unable to meet their basic needs but our national efforts should not stop there,” Mr Power said. “We can achieve even more for refugees through constructive diplomacy, targeted humanitarian action and bringing well-motivated governments and civil society organisations together to work on practical change.
“The new coalition government in Malaysia was elected on a platform which includes ratifying the Refugee Convention, giving work rights and formal registration to Malaysia’s 150,000 refugees and working for diplomatic solutions for the crises which have displaced Rohingya and Palestinians refugees. While much less dramatic, there are the early signs of change in both Thailand and Indonesia, with greater openness to addressing the needs of refugees.
“Unfortunately, these changes are largely being missed by an Australian Government which, up to this point, has been much more focused on detention, deterrence and deflection of people seeking refuge. Our organisation is doing its best to draw Australian decision-makers’ attention to the changes happening in the region and the benefits for all, including Australia, of a region which provides greater protection and stability for people forcibly displaced by persecution.
“Largely hidden behind the rightful international attention to the shocking mass displacement of 900,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar are the circumstances of 200,000 refugees from other ethnic groups from Myanmar, now living in Thailand, Malaysia, India and Indonesia. Many of these 200,000 refugees still hope to return home, when conditions improve. The possibility of building a sustainable peace for these refugees should be a high priority for Australian foreign policy in the region.
“Of course, Australia will never be accepted as a visionary international leader while its reputation remains so badly tarnished by its shocking offshore detention policy. A prompt and fair outcome for the 1600 people who remain on Nauru and Manus Island is a fundamentally important first step, one which will be seen by our neighbours as a signal that Australia is ready for a new level of constructive engagement.”
Read the media release
Read the detailed statistics in our media release.