The strategic importance of constructive engagement in Asia
If the greatest political fear in Australia is that refugees might seek to move on to Australia, then it makes sense for our government to be doing everything possible to promote stability and safety in countries where they first seek asylum, to be working with other nations to try to address the factors which prompt people to flee in the first place and to be helping refugees to find long-term answers to their displacement. This is the contradiction at the heart of Australian Government policy. Our nation has a strong preference for order and fairness and yet our promotion of deterrence and detention undermines the regional stability needed to maximise the opportunities for Australia to maintain an orderly border.
Instead we need to recognise that it is in Australia’s best interests to be a champion of refugee protection in Asia. If Afghan refugees are safe in Quetta in Pakistan then it is much less likely that they will seek to move on to somewhere else. If refugees in Indonesia could live legally, support themselves and be free from detention, then they are much more likely to remain where they are while longer term answers for them are found.
This should be the common ground between the Immigration Minister’s view about protecting Australia’s border and the millions of Australians motivated by a humanitarian concern for people who have fled persecution. Enhancing the safety of refugees in Asia is good for the refugees themselves and the most effective way of bringing the order the Australian Government wants to see.
In many ways, Australia’s international engagement in refugee issues is more important strategically than its domestic refugee policy. The best way, in the longer term, to reduce unregulated movement by boat is not through sending more people to years of pain in offshore detention or physically forcing back boatloads of desperate people to countries not interested in receiving them. Even if you are prepared to ignore the terrible suffering this policy creates, the breaches of international law or the considerable damage to Australia’s reputation, it is still clear that these policies are only stopgap measures.