This time last year the tiny body of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. The small vessel on which he and his family and other Syrian asylum seekers were travelling on in an attempt to reach the Greek island of Kos had capsized. Aylan and his family were attempting to enter Europe along with thousands of other Syrians, as well as irregular migrants and asylum seekers from other countries. For a few short weeks the images of Aylan's lifeless body caused an outpouring of sentiment in Europe and across the world. The image fuelled a call for government intervention to avert people having to take such desperate and dangerous journeys. The Australian government responded with the announcement of an additional 12,000 places for Syrian refugees in the humanitarian resettlement intake on top of the annual intake of 13,750 places.
A few weeks ago the world was again shocked by the image of a traumatised, dust-covered and bloodied Syrian boy, Omran Daqneesh, sitting on a bright orange seat in an ambulance after an airstrike near his house in Aleppo in which his brother was killed and his mother critically wounded. Five years on from the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the international community continues to wring its collective hands yet fails to find the resolve to work toward the root causes of refugee flows.
Today, the United Nations meets in a high-level meeting of the General Assembly in New York to address large-scale movements of refugees and migrants. The meeting comes one week after the commemorations for the anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks on the twin towers in New York. That event triggered the US led interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq that continue to cause refugee outflows from both countries as well as destabilisation in neighbouring countries.
Globally the number of refugees and displaced persons are at an unprecedented level since the end of World War II, at some 65 million. The background documents the UN has drafted for adoption make for sober reading. They underscore the international cooperation required to adequately address the scale of forced displacement and the human suffering that results. Addressing the root causes of conflict and working towards early prevention is the most critical challenge for governments. But this is nothing new.
What will be telling is the depth of commitment given by member states meeting in New York to the outlined scale of the problem of large movements of refugees and migrants. The commitments are expected in a range of areas. These include capacity building to the rule of law and of human rights institutions in countries in transition from conflict and, importantly, a commitment to uphold fundamental principles in international law such as protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons in transit.
The UN meeting today is followed tomorrow by President Obama's Leaders' Summit on refugees. The summit is looking for commitments from leaders in three areas: to increase funding to humanitarian appeals and international organisations; admit more refugees through resettlement and other legal pathways; and to increase refugees' self-reliance and inclusion through educational opportunities and access to legal work.
Countries of the East Asia and Asia-Pacific region have an important role to play in both meetings and in securing the commitments sought. Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand host the most significant numbers of asylum seekers and irregular migrants in our region. None are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
For Australia, the leading question our representatives will have to be address today and tomorrow is: what is planned for the asylum seekers held in indefinite detention on Nauru, in PNG as well as on Christmas Island? The UN has equated the harm done to women, children and men held in detention as torture.
The suite of policies of Operation Sovereign Borders – of off-shore processing and detention and the interdiction and push-back of boats departing Indonesia – have cost an estimated AUD $9.5 billion since 2013. This is more than the total budget of the UNHCR to tackle refugee problems globally for this year. Alternatives to these policies have often been proposed to the Australian government. Most recently, the Australian Human Rights Commission launched a comprehensive report, 'Pathways to Protection' that recommends the adoption of a more humane regional cooperation framework as a key plank in protecting asylum seekers and ensuring the horrors of Nauru and Manus Island are never repeated.
The yearly humanitarian resettlement intake of refugees is usually pointed to by the Australian government as the rationale for the tough approach to boat arrivals. Yet the images of Aylan Kurdi and of Omran Daqneesh are timely reminders that the life of one person cannot be bartered for another. What is being discussed today in New York is premised on fundamental principles. Human rights values do not permit that those on Nauru and Manus Island be used as an expendable human shield in a policy regime of deterrence.
Both the UN meetings' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Obama's three-point plan recognise the inter-dependence of factors that drive large scale refugee and migration flows: violence and conflict; extreme poverty and inequality; environmental degradation and adverse impacts of climate change. If the high-level meeting and President Obama's summit are to have traction and be judged by the international community as solutions targeting the root causes of refugee flows rather than adopting band-aid solutions, comprehensive commitments are required. For a country such as Australia, a pledge equivalent to the amount expended in the last three years of Operation Sovereign Borders is the scale of commitment required. The form such a pledge takes could be part of a productive negotiation with countries in the region in building their capacity to host asylum seekers and irregular migrants with access to work rights, to education and health care.
Photo: Asanka Brendon Ratnayake/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images