Refugee Council of Australia
Three people at microphones

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

Australia’s potential role in South East Asia

My thoughts about durable solutions for refugees have been significantly shaped by my interaction with NGO counterparts in Asia, through involvement as a steering committee member of the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network. The view of quite a few NGO leaders in Malaysia and Thailand is that each of those countries can and should do more as part of the international response to refugees. Economic growth has seen both countries classified now by the World Bank as upper middle-income countries.

In a world where displacement is at a 70-year high, it is no longer acceptable for Malaysia and Thailand to expect western nations to step in and resettle all refugees in their territory, doing nothing in return. Over the past decade, resettlement nations—particularly the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—have resettled more than 100,000 refugees from Thailand and more than 80,000 refugees from Malaysia. As a group, those resettlement nations could do much more to engage Thailand and Malaysia in a constructive dialogue about working collectively to improve the longer term protection of refugees. It is time to ask for some reciprocal sharing of responsibility.

If we accept, as I suggested earlier, that Australia has much to gain through promoting protection and security for refugees in Asia, then it would make sense for our nation to take a leadership role on refugee issues in the region. South East Asia is a region where, with a vision for what could be achieved, it might be possible to work towards practical solutions for many of the region’s refugees.

What is remarkable about the refugee population in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is that 87 per cent of the region’s 275,000 refugees and people seeking asylum originate from the one country – Myanmar. Much of Australia’s policy in the region relates to the other 13%, the 35,000 refugees and people seeking asylum who have come from a range of countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Of the 240,000 refugees from Myanmar in South East Asia, 57,500 are Rohingya and 182,500 are from other ethnic minorities, particularly Karen and Chin.

While the situation for Rohingya is rapidly worsening, the situation for other ethnic minorities is different. Small numbers of refugees are returning home and others would be prepared to consider it, if their fears about security, landmines and livelihoods were addressed. There is a real opportunity to engage refugee communities, host states and the government of Myanmar in working on a peace-building strategy in Karen, Mon, Karenni, Kachin, Chin and Shan states, to see what could be achieved. With refugees from these states making up two-thirds of all refugees in South East Asia, the opportunity to work towards sustainable return is too great to be ignored, despite the many challenges.

My perhaps idealistic but also very practical strategy for Australia to rebuild its damaged reputation on human rights is to take the principles of the New York Declaration and develop them into a plan for renewed international engagement and domestic policy reform.

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