Looking beyond resettlement alone
In thinking about a more effective international response for Australia, we must first acknowledge that, while resettlement is important, it is only part of the answer. As Australians, most of the refugees we see in this country have come through a resettlement program. It is tempting to think, therefore, that the answer is to increase resettlement to the level where every refugee can get to a safe place in a country of asylum and wait there patiently until a resettlement place becomes available in North America, Europe, Australia or New Zealand. If that is our strategy, then we are sentencing many refugees to decades in limbo.
Last year, despite refugee resettlement being at a 20-year high, only 189,300 of the world’s 22.5 million refugees were resettled. So, if you want to believe in a resettlement queue (and I can assure you that such a queue doesn’t exist), then your mythical queue on last year’s figures is 119 years long. The Trump administration’s decision to cut its resettlement queue in half to 50,000 will see the number of refugees resettled this year drop to much closer to 100,000. This would extend the mythical queue to two centuries. Even if we could increase resettlement ten-fold, and I don’t believe that is possible politically, it would still take more than a generation to resettle those who are refugees right now.
We need many more resettlement places around the world but we need more protection opportunities for refugees than resettlement alone can provide. I have had numerous opportunities over the past decade to talk to refugees in a wide variety of situations in different continents. The overwhelming desire of most is to return home if and when it is safe to do so. Some have concluded that their homelands will never offer them safety, but most have not. Many would prefer to remain close to their country of origin, if they could find a way of doing so legally, safely and viably, while they wait for things to change back home.
Quite a few of those who have no hope of return would still prefer to remain where they are, if they could, rather than seek resettlement in another country. A number of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia who have been offered resettlement to the United States have refused it, opting to remain in Malaysia, preferring a climate and culture which is familiar despite their lack of security or legal status there. Durable solutions for refugees need to be based on what refugees want, not on what we imagine they want. For many refugees, resettlement becomes the least worst option only when safe return home is never going to be possible in the future and building a viable life where they are isn’t possible.