Two international summits held in New York this week were intended to generate fresh political will and substantial new pledges to bolster the international response to refugees. Australia's contribution to these summits was not only inadequate, it demonstrated a fundamental misconception of the requirements of international cooperation for refugee protection.
There was little new or significant in the announcements made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at President Obama's Leaders' Summit on Refugees on Tuesday, despite this being a condition of entry. The decision to maintain Australia's Humanitarian Program at 18,750 places from 2018-19 onward has been described as 'a bit of a con', simply reflecting that a previously announced increase would not be cut. This falls far short of the (still modest) 30,000-50,000 places that various civil society groups had called for before the summits.
Australia's commitment of an additional $130 million in aid over three years to support refugees and host communities in countries of first asylum has been welcomed, although whether this constitutes a generous contribution is a matter of perspective. It is just a fraction of the $880.5 million allocated in the 2016-17 Budget to maintain offshore processing on Manus and Nauru for a single year.
A Community Support Program was announced to enable communities and businesses to sponsor and support the settlement of 1000 refugees. This appears to be an expansion of the recently completed Community Proposal Pilot, which had mixed reviews. Crucially, it is not yet clear whether the places under this program will be incorporated within the 18,750 places in the humanitarian quota. It will only genuinely expand pathways to protection if it is additional. As lessons from the Community Proposal Pilot show, the details of how such schemes are administered can determine whether they really enhance access to protection, or are merely available to a privileged few.
The announcement that Australia will participate in a scheme to resettle refugees from Central America has raised eyebrows. The scheme is an in-country processing arrangement enabling Central Americans to apply for protection before leaving their country of origin. After pre-screening, with assistance from UNHCR and IOM, those identified as having an urgent protection need are transferred to Costa Rica pending resettlement elsewhere. The scheme is in its infancy, and is part of a suite of measures by the US (including some harsh deterrence measures) to address the increasing irregular movement of Central Americans to the US through Mexico. In this respect, Australia's participation in the scheme could be seen as a cynical attempt to undercut criticism of its own asylum policies by helping the US with its own domestic political problem. The announcement also drew speculation that this might be part of a quid pro quo arrangement, whereby the US would resettle refugees from Manus and Nauru, a suggestion that has been denied by the Australian government. It's unclear whether the Central American places will be additional to the announced humanitarian quota.
The most resounding criticism of the government's performance has been reserved for its jarring refrain that Australia's policies on border protection and asylum are 'the best in the world', while steadfastly ignoring the elephant in the room: offshore processing. Not only does this disregard the incontrovertible harm wreaked upon individuals and families affected by this policy, but is symptomatic of a broader failure to acknowledge the full implications of Australia's 'border security' approach to asylum.
At the UN General Assembly, Turnbull elaborated the three pillars of Australia's approach to the 'global surge in migration' as follows:
First, strong border controls, with effective measures to combat people smuggling and terrorism, supported by a planned migration program. Secondly, a compassionate humanitarian policy, one that doesn't focus merely on the numbers that we take in but offers substantial resettlement programs and supports those countries hosting large numbers of refugees themselves. And third, effective international and regional cooperation.
Turnbull had argued the previous day at the Obama summit that this strategy 'addresses all parts of the problem'. He suggested that public confidence in the government's ability to manage borders is an essential precondition to support for humanitarian refugee programs. Putting to one side the question of whether the Australian public's concern about secure borders has been assuaged or amplified by government rhetoric and policy, Turnbull is wrong to say that this approach represents a comprehensive or coherent response to the global challenge of displacement.
Most people would accept that a predictable and well-managed response to refugees and migrants (to the extent that this is possible) is good for everyone, and that countries can and should exercise some degree of control over their borders. But there is a vast difference between managed approaches that seek to expand access to protection, and those that seek to shift responsibility for protecting refugees onto others.
Since the 1990s, Australia and a host of other wealthy countries have adopted an increasingly duplicitous posture towards refugee protection. On the one hand, they have affirmed their commitment to assisting refugees, while on the other they have increasingly put in place measures to push asylum seekers as far away as possible from triggering international obligations. These efforts have included carrier sanctions, visa restrictions, boat turn-backs and offshore processing. As James Hathaway and Thomas Gammeltoft-Hansen have observed, this approach 'enables a pattern of minimalist engagement under which the formal commitment to refugee law can be proclaimed as a matter of principle without risk that the wealthier world will actually be compelled to live up to that regime's burdens and responsibilities to any serious extent'.
The problem is that if all states insisted that no asylum seekers were allowed onto their territory uninvited, the entire system of refugee protection would fail. If other countries heeded Australia's exhortations to replicate its 'model' border security approach, the very foundations of refugee protection would be seriously eroded.
There is some evidence that this is already happening. Recent research by the UK's Overseas Development Institute shows harsh refugee policies in Australia and Europe have had 'ripple effects', encouraging crackdowns, expulsions and border closures in countries such as Indonesia, Kenya and Jordan:
Restrictions in developed countries send a clear message that at best it is one rule for them and another for the rest of the world, or at worst that international obligations towards refugees simply do not hold any more; either way tilting the balance towards restriction.
This is why the three-pronged approach presented by Australia in New York is incoherent. A deterrence-based approach to border security undermines the foundations for international and regional cooperation for refugee protection, and encourages the closure of asylum space in the very countries we proclaim to aid. While resettlement and assistance to refugee-hosting states should both be an integral part of efforts to share responsibility for refugee protection, they cannot offset the profoundly negative effects of attempts to avoid our obligations towards those seeking safety on our shores. Until Australia embraces its own responsibility to protect refugees, it cannot engage in good faith efforts to promote the international and regional cooperation that is so greatly needed to address the challenge of displacement.
Photo: Getty Images/Anadolu Agency