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Our key concerns

RCOA’s submission focuses on the following areas identified in the terms of reference of the Inquiry:

  • The implementation and efficacy of innovation in Australia’s aid program (Recommendations 2, 6)
  • Australia’s aid program in terms of strategic and development goals (Recommendations 1, 2, 3), and
  • Australia’s aid program in fostering confidence, stability, sustainability, capacity, community-determined goals and best outcomes, particularly by utilising local procurement and smaller/local entities (Recommendations 1, 4, 5, 6).

Restoring Australian aid

Australia’s total overseas development aid budget for 2018–19 is $4.16 billion. According to the Australian Council for International Development, over four years to 2017–18, Australia’s aid budget has been cut by $3.7 billion, the equivalent of a quarter of Australia’s Overseas Development Assistance (ODA), and the recent budget will result in cuts of $141 million over the forward estimates. Our current aid contribution of 0.22% of Gross National Income in 2017–18 (already our lowest share) will drop to 0.19% by 2021–22.

This decline reflects a decline in ODA globally. In 2017, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development recorded a 0.6% decrease in global aid. This brings the global average to just 0.31% of GNI spending on ODA assistance, with just five countries meeting the 0.7% target set by the UN (Sweden, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and the United Kingdom).

These cuts come at a time of increasing global instability. The UN estimates that over 128 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2018, with conflict and natural disasters being the top drivers of these needs. $25.3 billion in aid from the international community will be needed to provide assistance and protection, with 105 million people estimated to benefit from aid initiatives.

Stronger commitment from States is needed to achieve these targets. The 2017 target received less than half of the required funding by the end of the year ($11.9 billion was received, against a need for $23.5 billion), and the 2018 targets face similar global aid fatigue. Currently, only $7 billion has been funded, with an overwhelming $18.3 billion unmet.

Failing to meet these needs poses serious risks to Australia and beyond. Internationally, global aid assists in managing the risks of displacement, as well as addressing economic and social factors that contribute to forced displacement. Moreover, providing financial assistance to projects that mitigate the effects of climate change can reduce global instability, a reality that is particularly pertinent to the Indo-Pacific region. Australia’s pledge to reorient $1 billion of existing aid to climate change initiatives falls far below budgets set by other donors.

Regionally, Australia provides 60% of total aid to the Pacific region. However, other aid providers, notably China, have started to increase their involvement in the area. The Chinese government has recently announced their intention to strengthen links between diplomacy and aid, leading to an approach where diplomatic interests may drive aid provision. If Australia is to remain a strong partner focused on addressing vulnerabilities and leading on the promotion of human security in the Indo-Pacific region, we must continue to assist our island neighbours through a targeted and effective approach. Australia’s capacity to play this role requires a greater commitment to and investment in overseas aid.

Strategic cooperation to enhance refugee protection in the Indo-Pacific region

The Refugee Council of Australia has repeatedly called on the Australian Government to develop an integrated cross-portfolio approach to addressing issues of forced displacement, recognising the fundamentally global nature of the issue.

Australia has several levers of influence that could be used to much greater effect in an integrated strategy. These levers include:

  • Overseas aid: Despite the massive cuts in the past few 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 use its aid program more strategically to support regional, national and localised initiatives that contribute to enhancing refugee protection and addressing the drivers of displacement.
  • Diplomatic action: Working for improvements in human rights conditions in countries of origin and asylum is critical to a comprehensive and effective regional refugee strategy. As a new member of the Human Rights Council (2018–2021), Australia can play a constructive role in addressing root causes of displacement, which are often linked to human rights abuses.
  • Sharing expertise: NGOs and government agencies in Australia have considerable experience and expertise on many issues of refugee status determination, protection, settlement and engagement with refugee communities. This expertise gives Australia significant credibility in regional discussions and could be shared as part of strategies to support the development of new protection initiatives.
  • Refugee resettlement: Over the past 40 years, Australia has done much to support nations in the region through its resettlement program, including 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.

It is unclear how Australia’s Aid Program is used to address drivers of forced displacement or improve refugee protection. Both of these are of great significance in the Indo-Pacific region where there are few states that are signatories to the Refugee Convention and where there are large numbers of people in protracted refugee situations, internally displaced, seeking asylum or stateless. The Asia and Pacific region is home to 7.7 million people of concern to UNHCR. They include 3.5 million refugees, 1.9 million IDPs and 1.4 million stateless people. The majority of refugees originate from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Community members participating in RCOA’s annual consultations pointed to Australia’s significant investment in aid to Myanmar and Afghanistan, for example, which they argued could be better informed by protection concerns or used to leverage better outcomes, such as for returnees.

It would be good if we used foreign aid contributions, but how much of that is used for helping refugees in camps? Not very much. – Karen community member, Logan, Queensland (RCOA annual consultations, 2017)

Several people spoke about how Australian aid could be used to increase access to education or livelihoods for refugees in countries of asylum, including in refugee camps. This would contribute significantly to refugees finding safety and a future closer to home:

I know some organisations in (refugee) camps are helping, but if countries like Australia and others can actually help with those international NGOs that are doing, for example, trade school and education, and even scholarship opportunities for people in the refugee camps to go somewhere to actually build up themselves, I think that would be really great. If people are educated, if they are able to provide for their own needs, some of the abuse in the refugee camp will actually be cut down. – Community member, Brisbane (RCOA annual consultations, 2017)

The potential for effective co-operation between Australia’s Aid and Humanitarian programs remains unharnessed. Through the development of an overarching strategic approach, the guiding principles of both programs could be harnessed to support each other. This could be further supported by considered diplomatic efforts, either bilateral or multilateral.

Australia needs to have a very explicit regional protection strategy that links across aid, diplomatic efforts and resettlement. At the moment, Australia has a regional deterrence strategy (developed in 2013) that…is premised on the notion that there are no refugees coming from within the region; that they’re all coming externally to the region. In reality, 87% (of refugees) or probably more now are actually from within the region… – Service provider, Sydney (RCOA annual consultations, 2017)

To achieve the goal of enhancing refugee protection and addressing the drivers of forced displacement in our region, the Australian Government should convene a forum with representatives of relevant government departments, NGOs, peak bodies, intergovernmental bodies and other relevant stakeholders to advance the development of an integrated and strategic response to forced displacement in our region, including consideration of the roles of aid, diplomacy, capacity-building and resettlement.

Greater support for global governance systems

Funding for the United Nations is vital to support its various agencies and institutions, and to ensure that global governance systems can perform effectively. The voluntary contributions made by the 193 members of the UN are critical to the resource pool, as many UN organisations, such as the World Food Program, rely solely on discretionary funding.

Increasing financial support for the UN can be both strategic and effective, as no other organisation has such reach, scale and impact. Further, many of UN’s agencies are serving the most vulnerable populations in unstable regions, including through peacekeeping, aiding famine-struck areas, and assisting victims of the most prolific refugee crises in history.

Many UN campaigns have been gravely underfunded in recent years. In 2017, only 50.6% of humanitarian needs were funded. Targets for 2018 needs are similarly concerning, with global humanitarian response plans thus far only having received 27.8% of the required funding. In the Indo-Pacific region, humanitarian funding for Myanmar is currently at 21.6% of the USD $183.4 million needed. Funding of UN response plans in Bangladesh and Pakistan are currently at 16.9% and 14.3% respectively.

The funding situation for the UN agency with the mandate to protect refugees—the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)—has reached a crisis point. Despite the record needs of refugees around the world, the gaps in UNHCR’s budget have been consistently growing since 2016. In 2018, UNHCR’s global budget was estimated to be USD $8.275 billion, with only USD $1.745 billion (or 20%) committed by donors. This leaves a budget gap of USD $6.599 billion.

UNHCR’s budget for the Asia and the Pacific region was estimated at USD $329 million in 2018 (a supplementary appeal was made in October 2017 in response to the Rohingya crisis). UNHCR reports that shortfalls in funding have resulted in UNHCR’s diminished presence in certain parts of the region, and a prioritisation of resources is likely to reduce the number of UNHCR staff across Asia and the Pacific. Funding shortfalls are expected to have an impact on UNHCR’s “provision of life-saving support in the context of the Myanmar refugee emergency, critical support to Afghan refugees throughout the region and those who return home, as well as smaller, less visible operations across the region” (see Section 5 of this submission on support for refugees in Indonesia).

These ongoing shortfalls in funding mean UNHCR cannot properly discharge its duty to protect refugees in critical situations around the globe.

Whilst it is important for states to continue to fund programs and initiatives of their own making, the relief of global crises and aid issues cannot be achieved through domestic programs alone. It is imperative that Australia as a member of the international community with a strong reputation as a contributor to humanitarian responses continues to make a significant financial contribution to global governance mechanisms, including to UNHCR and other UN agencies.

Aid for refugee hosting middle-income countries in the Indo-Pacific

Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are middle-income countries hosting over 280,000 refugees and asylum seekers in the Indo-Pacific region. However, refugee communities lack the necessary protection and recognition under domestic laws in these key refugee hosting countries, and most do not have access to the right to work, formal education or affordable healthcare. As with most of the countries in the region, these three countries are not signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Refugees and other forcibly displaced populations in the Indo-Pacific region are given very minimal international support or recognition of their situations. Their needs are often overlooked in host countries, as well as by international organisations and in bilateral aid programs, which have priorities elsewhere.

Refugees and other forcibly displaced populations in the Indo-Pacific region are often supported by small local organisations that depend entirely on minimal amounts of and precarious funding. In Malaysia, some children among the refugee population of 150,000 have received informal education through initiatives run by the UNHCR, NGOs or community-based organisations (CBOs). However, these programs are limited and under-resourced. In Thailand, most of the 100,000 camp-based asylum seekers have been denied access to formal asylum procedures and continue to wait for durable protection solutions. It is further estimated that 8,000 refugees are largely unrecognised by the government, and rely on limited aid from UNHCR and CBOs.

A lack of available funding directly impacts upon refugees who rely on support from international organisations, such as the World Food Programme and the UNHCR, particularly in the context of the global funding shortfalls described above. For many refugees, this condemns them to a life of poverty, and forces them to make difficult choices between health, accommodation and schooling for their children.

In these contexts, Australian aid can be an important tool in improving livelihoods. Through the provision of aid, Australia can support local organisations who are assisting refugees living in precarious situations. Funding for civil society organisations situated in refugee hosting countries could help address factors that may push these individuals to make dangerous onward journeys, including to Australia.

Increasing aid support for national NGOs and local community-based organisations (CBOs) as a means of enhancing the protection of these vulnerable groups in the Southeast Asian region has the potential to be both strategic and effective. As this Inquiry has noted, local organisations are often best equipped to understand the most pressing needs of the communities they work with.

Initiatives such as the newly-established Australian Aid Friendship Grants could be used to assist smaller refugee and forcibly displaced populations in the region more effectively.

Increasing strategic aid to vulnerable populations in Indonesia

The number of refugees and people seeking asylum in Indonesia has continued to rise, increasing from 11,186 in 2014 to 14,405 in 2016. 25% of refugees are children, with 404 arriving alone or separated from their families. The largest groups of refugees in Indonesia are from Afghanistan, Myanmar (Rohingya) and Somalia, with limited prospects of returning to their countries of origin in safety in the foreseeable future.

Indonesia is not a signatory to the UN 1951 Refugee Convention, and is not under any obligation to provide ongoing protection to refugees and asylum seekers. It continues to emphasise its role as a country of transit. At the same time, a positive recent development was the signing of a Presidential Decree on 31 December 2016, which upheld the international legal definition of a refugee under the 1951 Refugee Convention, and paved the way for a framework for refugee management among governmental bodies. While these are encouraging high-level changes, there are many legal, economic and social problems that persist for refugees in their everyday lives.

People seeking asylum and refugees in Indonesia are denied work permits, and have restricted or no access to public services such as education or healthcare. Very few individuals receive financial support through UNHCR (298 people out of a population of 14,405 in 2016), while others survive by drawing on whatever resources they can find—including through the generosity of local people—and many are forced to live in homelessness and destitution.

Around a third of the population of concern to UNHCR in Indonesia are living in unsanitary and over-crowded detention centres. Many of the inmates have been detained for four or more years, and have reported instances of physical abuse, including electric shocks, floggings and beatings.

Further, refugees who registered with UNHCR in Indonesia after 1 July 2014 have been denied resettlement in Australia. While those registered prior to this date have continued to be considered for resettlement, the Australian Government has also decreased the number of available places. From 2014-2015, Australia accepted 450 refugees for resettlement, compared to 600 the year before. In 2016, across all resettlement countries, just 636 refugees living in Indonesia were accepted by third countries. The effects of these policies have been amplified by the outbreak of the Rohingya crisis, and the cuts to the United States resettlement program.

The lack of opportunity for resettlement essentially leaves refugees with two options: to remain living in Indonesia under the precarious circumstances described above, or to return home. In many cases, these fail to offer sustainable and long-term pathways for refugees to rebuild stable lives.

Australian policies and programs are notably implicated in the creation of this situation. There is significant potential to reconsider Australian aid to Indonesia in ways that are both strategic and effective, and focused on principles of protection and human security.

For instance, funding available to UNHCR in Indonesia to implement protection strategies is dwarfed by Australian government (aid) funding to IOM to deter refugees from attempting to seek asylum in Australia. As of March 2018, UNHCR Indonesia had received no direct funding and faced a funding gap of USD $7.2 million, namely its entire budget. Conversely, Australia’s annual global funding of IOM has increased from USD $17 million in 2001 to $72 million in 2016. Most of this goes to Indonesia for migration control. If this funding was reallocated, this is likely to enhance Australia’s credibility in regional discussions about refugee protection.

Untapped innovators: Aid and Australia’s diaspora communities

The assets and capabilities of diaspora communities in Australia have hitherto been largely ignored in Australia’s foreign policy and international engagement, including in the planning, implementation and evaluation of Australia’s overseas aid program. (Diaspora communities refer to groups of people who maintain active connections to their countries of origin or refuge.) This is despite increasing evidence that diaspora communities in Australia are actively engaged in peacebuilding, development and humanitarian responses in many parts of the world.

These communities have achieved some significant results, such as building schools and hospitals, improving local economies through remittances and investment, raising money for disaster relief, and promoting respect for human rights. However, their work has remained largely invisible. Moreover, diaspora communities in Australia are often able to respond promptly at times of crisis, and are often the first to send resources to affected populations and provide important lifelines to those in situations of protracted displacement. Refugee diasporas are uniquely equipped to effect change, drawing on their valuable and in-depth knowledge of local contexts and links with people on the ground.

Whilst the important contribution of diasporas in situations of forced displacement is gaining recognition internationally, there is much that could be done by Australia to engage with and support diaspora initiatives.

Recognising the role of diasporas can be achieved by enabling an environment for diaspora-led development, peace-building and humanitarian responses. This may involve close examination at policies that inhibit constructive international engagements of diasporas. For instance, Australia anti-terrorism laws disable transnational flows of money to places and people where there are perceived security threats. At the same time, this disables cross-border flows of money to places and people in desperate need of help, and where individual and collective remittances from people in Australia represent an extremely effective form of humanitarian assistance. By seeing diasporic engagements primarily through a lens of risk (security threats), the significant potential for protective and positive engagements are undermined.

The Australian Government would do well to consider the potential of diaspora resources, capabilities and networks in enhancing its aid efforts, including through innovation and cooperation. This may be achieved through building government and NGO capabilities and opportunities to engage with diasporas, as well as supporting diaspora initiatives directly and amplifying diaspora functions through the establishment of a program modelled on the Danish Refugee Council’s Diaspora Programme.

The establishment of the Diaspora Learning Network (DLN) in 2016 is a welcome first step in the Australian Government investing in diaspora innovation, and could be built further upon with an ongoing commitment of funding.

Our recommendations

Recommendation 1

The Australian Government should restore its overseas aid program to its former level and develop a plan to increase overseas aid to 0.7% of Gross National Income.

Recommendation 2

The Australian Government should ensure greater strategic alignment between Australia’s Aid and Humanitarian Programs and international diplomacy to enhance refugee protection and address the drivers of displacement.

Recommendation 3

The Australian Government should make an increased financial commitment through its Aid Program to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), including for its operations in the Asia Pacific Region.

Recommendation 4

The Australian Government should increase and target aid support for local and national NGOs assisting forcibly displaced populations in middle-income countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Recommendation 5

The Australian Government should revise its allocation in aid to Indonesia with a focus on protection.

Recommendation 6

The Australian Government should invest in further developing the capacity of diaspora communities and organisations to contribute to the planning, implementation and evaluation of Australian aid.

Read the full submission