Refugee Council of Australia
Three people at microphones

Rebuilding our damaged reputation: A strategy for Australian leadership on refugee protection

Reshaping Australia’s international engagement

The international engagement would begin with Australia using its involvement in international forums and its future membership of the UN Human Rights Council to push for international action on the root causes of displacement. If the world wants to put an end to the growth in the number of refugees, then it must take every step possible to intervene as displacement crises develop. The situation in Rakhine state in Myanmar is an obvious place to begin.

Answers are not easy to find but the consequences of international inaction are much easier to predict: a growing death toll, increasing displacement, a stunting of democratic change and economic development in Myanmar and significant impacts on many nations, even the potential for greater instability in the region. Some nation somewhere needs to draw other nations together to develop sustained international pressure on Myanmar to stop harming its own people. Australia is as well placed as any nation to take that step.

Our international engagement should also be focused on doing everything we can to promote peace-building and reconciliation in situations where conflicts have ended or the scale of conflict has reduced. This applies in Sri Lanka and also in parts of Myanmar, though the situation varies from state to state. Peace-building is critical to laying the ground work for the possible return of refugees in the future.

As I have suggested earlier, Australia could work very closely with other resettlement nations – particularly New Zealand, Canada and the US – to improve access to all three durable solutions in South East Asia. Through careful and constructive negotiation, based not on human rights (sadly) but on practical problem-solving, the resettlement states could actively work with states in the region and with refugee leaders towards the changes necessary for refugees to want to go to home.

What a wonderful thing it would be for Myanmar if many of the refugees who have fled over the past 25 years voted with their feet and returned home to help in the rebuilding of the country. While that is not going to be possible for the Rohingya in the foreseeable future, it could be possible for people from other minorities, with the right vision and action.

If people in the region believe that significant change to the refugee situation in the region is possible, then it becomes much easier to have a serious dialogue about how things can be different for refugees who aren’t thinking about going home. It could be possible for Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia to consider allowing people who are already in the country to have short or medium-term legal status. It could be possible to demonstrate that those nations would be better off allowing refugees to work to support themselves, rather than detaining them or forcing them into illegal work. In this situation, a more limited resettlement program would focus on the most vulnerable, demonstrating the continuing good will and interest of resettlement states.

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