The ongoing asylum seeker debacle: It will always be about the push factors!
Let’s start with some basic facts. The 1951 Refugee Convention (as broadened by the 1967 Protocol) provides that the term “refugee” shall apply to any person who:
"owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it."
So the very definition of a ‘refugee’ entails human movement from a country of origin, sometimes via a transitory second country, towards a destination country where protection might be sought. Australia like all signatories to the Convention has legal and moral obligations to provide this protection regardless of how asylum seekers reach its shores and airports.
In terms of sheer numbers, the overall figure of asylum seekers arriving in Australia even at its peak in 2010 (12,640) is still much lower than similar size countries such as Canada (23,160), Sweden (31,820), Belgium (25,980) and even Switzerland (13,520). In fact, in terms of a per capita ranking, Australia ranks 18 among Western countries in receiving asylum seekers. And this should put the current hysteria somehow in some sort of a wider international perspective.
And no matter the type of deterrent measures countries might adopt, the flight of asylum seekers will continue to be a feature of our human societies for centuries to come as the root causes and the push factors are not likely to disappear any time soon.
Now we come to the recent report by the so-called panel of experts, which is anything but a credible durable solution.
YES it does include some long overdue adjustments most notably increasing Australia’s annual intake of refugees from its current level of around 13,000 to potentially 27,000 by 2018. And YES there is a welcome if yet unclear de-linking of the on-shore and off-shore components of the refugee intake which previously created real tensions between migrant communities here in Australia.
Overall, the proposed recommendations are a mixed bag of re-hashed policies some of which are of the lowest common denominator and will simply continue in different guises the dreaded pacific solution. The recommendations will essentially outsource Australia’s obligations under the refugee Convention to tiny impoverished island nations in the region as part of offshore processing. Warehousing asylum seekers indefinitely in remote islands is hardly worth getting excited about.
Overall, this report does not articulate clearly a genuinely regional approach nor does it do anything to build regional capacity for speedy determination processes through UNHCR offices in the region. As such, it will amount to nothing more than another refugee policy debacle that will do little to save lives as claimed by those celebrating the ‘bi-partisan breakthrough’. For many asylum seekers desperate for resettlement, and for those advocating on their behalf, this report does nothing in the way of providing expeditious and effective protection as part of a more durable solution.