Scaling the migration summit
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Scaling the migration summit

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

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Executive Summary

On Monday, the UN Secretary-General convened a high-level "meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants". World leaders endorsed an "Outcome Document" that commits states to negotiating a "comprehensive refugee response framework" and separately a "global compact for safe, orderly and regular migration", for adoption in 2018. The following day, US President Obama hosted a Leaders' Summit on the Refugee Crisis, to generate financial support and more resettlement places for refugees.

Critics have been quick to react. There wasn't enough consultation before or during either meeting - attendance by civil society representatives was limited, many couldn't get into the meetings because of security requirements at the UN, and those who did listened to a series of prepared statements by governments. At the UN these governments have kicked the real decisions down the road, and left themselves ample room to row back from vague commitments. Maybe another 10,000 migrants will die in the Mediterranean between now and 2018.

At the Obama Summit, the main headline was the private sector filling the void left by governments. Both the UN and world leaders only sat up and took notice once refugees started arriving in Europe - never mind the millions displaced for decades in Africa and Asia. What does it say for global co-ordination that the UN Secretary-General and US President host competing events on the same issue on consecutive days?

There is a more positive read-out. The ceasefire in Syria may already be in jeopardy, but at least the world is at last paying attention to its victims. The UN Outcome Document lays the foundations for significant, much-needed reform, and acknowledges the need for more effective global governance on migration and refugees. President Obama was explicit about the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and civil society. The events were largely complementary - the high-level meeting set in train a process; while the Obama Summit was a "pay to play" event with immediate dividends.

As I argued in a recent Lowy Analysis, Australia has a historic opportunity to influence these outcomes.

It may be argued that Australia has more pressing priorities. Now that the boat arrivals have stopped, Australia is hardly affected by the current refugee crisis. Last year Australia processed less than 1 per cent of the world's asylum applications. It clearly fulfils its international obligations through a generous refugee resettlement program, the third-largest in the world, and has one of the world's best-managed migration programs.

But in fact it is in Australia's national interest to take a lead. First, it is important to pre-empt future shocks that may result in an increase in asylum applications. There is no guarantee that Operation Sovereign Borders will be sustainable - it may be overwhelmed by large numbers of boats or undercut by legal challenges and financial constraints. In the next decade, Australia should also expect growing pressures from people seeking to escape the effects of environmental change.

Second, in comparison to most other industrialised states, especially in Europe, Australia has a historic opportunity to be proactive. As Australia learned a few years ago, there is no political appetite or policy bandwidth to focus on long-term reform in the throes of a short-term asylum crisis. This is exactly why the world needs Australia to conceptualise, propose and support reform now. Promoting reform of the international protection regime may also be one way for Australia to allay some of the international criticism it has attracted because of its asylum policy.

Third, advocating to improve the performance of the international protection regime is a logical progression of Australia's historic commitment towards it. It was Australia's signature in 1954 that brought the 1951 Refugee Convention into force. One of the underlying principles is shared responsibility. Proximity should define responsibility, and Australia has a responsibility to help improve the response to the global refugee crisis, even if it is not directly affected for now.

The world may have helicoptered into Base Camp, but Australia can now lead the assault to scale the migration summit.


Dr Khalid Koser is a non-resident fellow in the Migration and Border Policy Project.

Areas of expertise: International migration; asylum; refugees; internal displacement; countering violent extremism