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Australian leadership needed to scale the refugee summit

Australian leadership needed to scale the refugee summit

On 19 September, a UN high-level meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants is expected to endorse 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 outcome document acknowledges (albeit implicitly) that the international protection regime is failing. On one hand it reaffirms the centrality of the legal and normative framework that underpins the regime; on the other it acknowledges that not enough has been done to reduce the need for people to flee in the first place, that many fall into the hands of people smugglers, that responsibility for protecting and assisting refugees is not being shared fairly, that too many refugees spend too long in camps, that they often face discrimination in the countries where they arrive; and the protection regime is chronically underfunded.

The document also lays the foundations for significant reform. It recognises that the distinction between migrants and refugees may not be as clear today as once it was. It envisages better protection for refugees closer to their homes. It links the protection regime with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It is explicit about the roles and responsibilities of the private sector and civil society. And it acknowledges the need for more effective global governance on migration and refugees.

While the outcome document refers to periodic assessments to maintain momentum towards 2018, the risk will be that states will retreat from some of the commitments made: they have a good excuse in language in the document that 'accounts for different national realities, capacities and levels of development and respects national policies and priorities'.

Australia should not retreat from its own commitments; in fact, it should be in the vanguard of ensuring that other states also commit to reform. [fold]

One might argue that Australia has more pressing priorities than reforming the protection regime. Now that the illegal arrival of boats has stopped, Australia is hardly affected by the failings of the regime. Last year Australia processed less than 1% of the world's asylum applications. It clearly fulfills its international obligations through a generous refugee resettlement program (the third-largest in the world) with one of the world's best-managed migration programs.

But in a Lowy Analysis Paper published earlier this week, I argue that in fact it is in Australia's interest to take a lead in reforming the international protection regime. First, it is important to preempt 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, especially in the South Pacific.

Second, in comparison to most other industrialised states, especially in Europe, Australia has an 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 Europe 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 over the last few years.

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

The Lowy Analysis Paper defines concrete policy options for Australia to promote reform at the domestic, regional, and global levels. It is clear that without Australia, the international community will never scale the refugee summit.

Photo: Getty Images/Dan Kitwood

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