Is a regional solution for asylum seekers possible?

By Asher Hirsch
I would like to see peace come back in to the world - Jose Humberto Carvo (Peru) - Mixed Media

The above image is taken from the Heartlands Refugee Art Prize exhibition. Click here to see more.

This article is part of our July focus on “Australia in the World”. Click here for more articles in this issue.

By Asher Hirsch

There are over 4.7 million refugees in our region, with the addition of asylum seekers, stateless people and others of concern bringing that number to over 15 million people. Australia has invested billions of dollars into a regional processing framework, yet the boats keep coming. After each new tragedy, politicians again point fingers and compete against each in a race to the bottom. The recent devastating tragedy is no different. While the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers continues to recommend a regional solution, it needs to be questioned whether such a task is possible.

We all want to stop people drowning at sea. As I work with young people from refugee backgrounds, I often meet many young people who have come to Australia by boat, and also sometimes those who have lost family at sea attempting the journey. Recently, someone asked me for help to locate a missing family member. The last they had heard from the family member was a phone call one month earlier as they were stepping onto a boat in Indonesia. My heart sank as I realised it was likely they may have been one of the victims of a recent boat tragedy. I could never understand the pain they must be feeling. Yet I also feel helpless in trying to convince others not to take the same option, as I know they have limited choices.

Are there ways to establish a mechanism to resettle refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia so they don’t have to risk a dangerous boat journey to Australia?

A few months ago I had other friends tell me that their family is waiting in Indonesia to board a boat. I tried warning them of the risks and of the fact that they would be in detention for months, if not years. But at the same time I knew their alternatives were also dire – either stay in Indonesia for an indefinite number of years without any rights and the threat of detention, or return to their country of origin to face certain persecution and possibly death. Thankfully, that family made it to Australia safely.

The above example does raise the question: is it possible to provide asylum seekers with other options? Are there ways to establish a mechanism to resettle refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia so they don’t have to risk a dangerous boat journey to Australia?

In the aftermath of the most recent tragedy, Paris Aristotle, member of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, called for a “regional solution” to process asylum seekers and refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia, and recommended returning those who come by boat back into that system. This was, in essence, the heart of the Expert Panel Recommendations, which led to the re-introduction of the Pacific Solution Mark II.

Under this proposal, refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia would simply wait patiently in line until the 100,000 are resettled. At the current rate, it would take ten years for a person at the end of this “queue” to be resettled to another country, all while being denied work rights, education, healthcare or social security and with the constant fear of being caught by the Malaysian police, beaten and forced across the border.

Similarly, there are 86,000 refugees in Thailand and 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia, also denied work rights, education and health care and also often placed in detention or prisons.

Furthermore, there are 1.6 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, compounding this issue. Many of them, mostly Hazaras, have fled to Australia via Malaysia and Indonesia to escape horrific ethnic massacres. Pakistan has also recently announced that from 30 June, all Afghan refugees have to return to Afghanistan or risk facing arrest and deportation. It is likely we would see a large influx of asylum seekers from here after these changes.

While the Expert Panel positively recommended an increase of 10,000 for Australia’s humanitarian intake, especially from our region, this makes very little difference for the 10.6 million refugees worldwide, with that number expected to sky rocket due to the Syrian conflict and the eventual withdrawal of ISAF forces in Afghanistan in 2014.

These numbers are staggering when you consider there are only 80,000 refugees per year resettled worldwide, meaning less than one percent of refugees find protection each year – with Australia’s additional 10,000 places making a 0.1 percent difference. To put it another way – if all the refugees were lined up in a single “queue”, a refugee would have to wait over 130 years to be resettled. Any regional solution, such as supporting greater resettlement from Malaysia, will do very little to address this global issue. A huge worldwide increase of refugee resettlement programs is needed to make any significant impact on this number.

Will the government's asylum seeker policy really stop people from risking a dangerous boat journey to Australia? DIAC images.

Will the government’s asylum seeker policy really stop people from risking a dangerous boat journey to Australia? (DIAC images).

Viewing the global refugee crisis through the prism of “supply and demand”, one of the most fundamental concepts of economics, we can see that while the demand for resettlement continues to increase, the supply remains the same – the only available options are to wait in a country that continues to persecute you and deny you basic human rights (including work or education), or to take a risky journey to a safe third country that accepts refugees.

So while the Expert Panel expects refugees and asylum seekers to simply wait patiently to be resettled, they have not provided any practical solutions to improve these waiting times or the conditions. Their only suggestion is to send people who choose to take a boat to Nauru or Manus Island for as long as it takes to ensure there is “no advantage”. At this stage, considering the numbers in Malaysia, it seems like that is at least 10 years.

It is worth noting that Malaysia and Indonesia are not signatories to the Refugee Convention, and as such are under no international obligation to provide human rights protections to asylum seekers and refugees. Regional solutions such as the ones advocated by the Expert Panel expect that we can somehow have a significant influence in the region to get Malaysia and Indonesia to suddenly provide protection and human rights to asylum seekers. However, the reality is that these countries will not change any time soon. Of course, if they did suddenly sign the Refugee Convention this would be hugely beneficial to the current issues we are facing. The fact is Australia provides the best standards of protection to recognised refugees in our region, even there is still much room for improvement.

If Australia were actually interested in “breaking the people smuggler’s business model” they would undercut the boat option by providing a cheaper and also safer alternative.

On the other hand, initiatives such as The Bali Process attempt to reduce the supply side of the equation through criminalising and prosecuting people smugglers.  The Bali Process is a regional initiative headed by the Australian and Indonesian Governments with the participation of 40 countries in the region. While Australia promotes the process as a regional solution, at its heart it is simply a forum to discuss further deterrent and criminalisation measures targeting people smugglers. This doesn’t just operate in Indonesia, but goes all the way back to “disruption” activities in source countries such as Pakistan.

The Bali Process Regional Cooperation Framework strives for goals such as eliminating people smuggling, assessing asylum seekers claims, “voluntary” (or otherwise) repatriation and increased border security. While the Bali Process seeks to provide “resettlement within and outside the region”, little has been done to increase these resettlement numbers. Instead, it has only focused on border security.

By only addressing the issue of people smuggling, the supply simply becomes scarcer, creating greater impact on the demand. The effects of this are seen in a number of ways, such as organisers crowding more people on boats, charging more for the passage or using older and more dangerous boats. Such a policy doesn’t stop asylum seekers, it just creates a greater risk at sea. People fleeing for their lives will always find another way – they have no other choice.

It is also clear that the Bali Process does nothing to address the “demand” side of this issue. While its own objective is to “focus on tackling the root causes of illegal migration” there has been no regional work or discussions on addressing the actual conflicts that cause refugee movements. Where wars and human rights violations continue to occur, people will always flee for their lives and it is our responsibility to protect them.

The problem with regional frameworks such as the Bali Process is they are micro focused, addressing only the immediate issues without looking at the broader picture. The only effective regional solution is one that seeks to increase the supply by resettling all refugees in our region as soon as possible. The only way Australia can accomplish such a task is by increasing our refugee intake to 100,000 per year, offset by reducing our migration intake. Such a policy is not unheard of – in fact, Australia did exactly that in aftermath of the Vietnam War. This policy, known as the Comprehensive Plan of Action, resettled over 125,000 refugees. We need to reinstate a similar policy so that refugees do not need to take a dangerous journey here. Refugees are proven to be extensively beneficial to our economy. Of course, this is not likely to happen, and as such, boats are going to continue coming and our government is going to continue pointing fingers.

If Australia were actually interested in “breaking the people smuggler’s business model” they would undercut the boat option by providing a cheaper and also safer alternative. We should increase our refugee intake so that people do not have to wait for 10 years to be resettled and thus don’t feel forced to catch a boat. The only way to “stop the boats” is to offer a resettlement alternative.

Asher Hirsch currently works at the Centre for Multicultural Youth (CMY). Any views and opinions reflected in this article are the authors own and not necessarily that of any associated organisations including CMY.


  • Anonymous

    On the whole, this is a very well-informed piece, written with intelligence, imagination and compassion. I agree with the conclusion that Australia should significantly increase the percentage of our permanent migration program allocated to refugee and humanitarian visas (currently sitting at about 5%). In the interests of saving lives at sea, we should also target our resettlement program at the refugee population in Indonesia, as it’s self-evident that their ultimate destination will be Australia, by way of a dodgy fishing boat (it is less clear that refugees in Thailand, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran necessarily intend to move on to Australia).

    On the other hand, increasing the resettlement quota without due care and planning does carry a risk of unforeseen consequences, as large-scale resettlement of refugees has a very real potential to distort situations of forced displacement – especially in a context of mixed migration – and can undermine other (no less important) protection activities being undertaken in host countries.

    To adopt an alternative take on the concept of “supply and demand”, based on experiences in the field, the “demand” from resettlement countries (especially Australia) for refugees – which UNHCR is not always able to “supply” at short notice, for the reasons given below – may create a “pull factor” to the host country in which UNHCR is operating, ie. news that UNHCR is resettling refugees from country Y, living in country X, may encourage people from country Y to travel to country X in the hope of a migration outcome to country Z… when they may not otherwise have left their country of origin in the first place.

    I can’t help feeling that some of the commendable advocacy being undertaken in Australia on behalf of refugees would benefit from greater clarity about the nature (and limitations) of resettlement, as one of three “durable solutions”. As an expatriate Australian, working directly with refugees in Pakistan, I do have a few observations.

    Respectfully, I take exception to the comment that “less than one percent of refugees find protection each year” – resettlement is not the only means of protecting the rights of refugees, and it is certainly not the preferred durable solution for most. To suggest otherwise is to trivialise the diligent efforts being made by conscientious volunteers and professionals (and often governments) to ensure that refugees can make informed decisions to return home in safety and dignity (and truly voluntarily, with appropriate support and assistance), to promote self-reliance and livelihoods in their first country of asylum, and to ensure some level of legal and physical protection. These efforts are not always successful, but they do count for something, and sometimes make a big difference to a refugee’s future.

    A critical point, which seems entirely absent from social and political discourse back home, is that satisfying the legal criteria for refugee status does not necessarily mean that a refugee is qualified for resettlement. To be eligible for resettlement, a refugee must meet separate guidelines set out in the UNHCR Resettlement Handbook (developed in consultation with resettlement countries, including Australia), as well as relevant visa requirements (including health requirements, and other “public interest criteria”). Many refugees, especially those recognized under the extended UNHCR mandate (rather than the 1951 Convention), will not qualify for resettlement.

    While the 1951 Convention affords many rights to refugees, as a matter of international law, resettlement is not one of them. Resettlement is simply a policy response by governments and the UN, and remains entirely discretionary. Moreover, UNHCR has no authority to force a government to resettle an individual refugee; its mandate is primarily to ensure that governments respect the rights of refugees within their own territory.

    Nor is resettlement is the preferred durable solution for each and every refugee, with most preferring to remain in their present country of asylum until it is possible for them to return to their country of origin. The notion of a queue is patently false (resettlement is not a “first come, first served” process; on the contrary, cases are prioritized according to the urgency of a refugee’s resettlement needs) – that said, it is equally misleading to suggest that refugees who are willing and eligible to be resettled should necessarily expect to wait for five or more years, or that there are millions of refugees who are in fact willing and eligible for resettlement. Refugees are often resettled within 12 months from the date of their registration with UNHCR, and sometimes much sooner, although processing times do vary between different regions; it also depends on the length of time required for resettlement countries to issue necessary security clearances.

    Moving on… the article states that “there are 1.6 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan”, with a link to figures published on the UNHCR website. By way of context, there are 1.6 million registered Afghans in Pakistan, holding Proof of Registration (POR) cards issued by the Government of Pakistan in 2007 after a partial census of the Afghan population (there are estimated to be at least another 1 million unregistered Afghans, who either missed the census, or arrived after 2007). About 80% of registered Afghans (ie. POR card-holders) reside in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and frequently travel back and forth across the border for trade, to visit family, to attend celebrations, etc. They are predominantly ethnic Pashtuns and Tajiks. Identifying those who are willing and eligible for resettlement is surprisingly challenging, as many have no desire to live in a Western country, for religious and cultural reasons (whereas most resettlement places are offered by the US, Australia and Canada). Poor security in KP and FATA makes it difficult to access those living outside of Peshawar, such that identifying and processing those who might have resettlement needs (as well as a convincing claim for refugee status) is far from easy. Moreover, many have no fear of being persecuted in Afghanistan, as such, but simply consider Pakistan to be home – particularly those who were born here. The reasons why many left Afghanistan during the 1980s and ’90s, whether as adults – or more typically, as young children – have been long forgotten, were never known, or are simply no longer relevant.

    To ensure the preservation of humanitarian space for those Afghans who are in need of protection and assistance in Pakistan, UNHCR considers POR card-holders to be refugees, prima facie. The vast majority, however, have never had their refugee status individually assessed. The relevance of this to resettlement is critical – UNHCR can only refer refugees to resettlement countries (such as Australia) if they have been individually assessed as meeting the definition of a refugee under the 1951 Convention, ie. they must face a real and foreseeable risk of serious and discriminatory harm amounting to persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.

    A significant proportion of Afghans in Pakistan are unwilling to repatriate because they have no means of subsistence; poor security is a relevant factor for some (although security is equally as bad in Pakistan, and probably worse for ethnic Hazaras), but the factors which discourage returns are more often cited as a lack of land (which is essential for subsistence, outside of Kabul), the comparably better employment opportunities, education and health care in Pakistan, and the absence of any remaining family ties or tribal connections in Afghanistan. Of course, there are still many Afghans who readily meet the definition of a refugee, and who really are in danger of being selectively killed, kidnapped or otherwise seriously harmed.

    For as long as there are people in this world who are persecuted, or forcibly displaced from their homes for other reasons – and governments who are complicit in cruelty, indifferent to suffering or simply incapable of protecting their citizens, without discrimination – there will be some who seek the surrogate protection of the international community. Few of them will ever reach Australia, and arguably, our first responsibility is to treat those who arrive in our territory with fairness, respect, equity and compassion. If we can’t do this much, it is immensely hypocritical of us to suggest that countries which host far greater numbers of displaced people are incapable of protecting them – or that Australia should have the right to pick and choose the most “desirable” refugees from a regional pool, while other countries with far fewer resources are left with the more problematic individuals.

    I am consistently amazed by the generosity, patience and resilience of Pakistanis (who have well over 1 million internally displaced citizens of their own, in addition to the Afghan population) – as they struggle to cope with recurring natural disasters, a lack of electricity for up to 12 hours a day, political fragility, and a multi-faceted insurgency that is equally as vicious, relentless and complex as the one being waged across the border.

    Peshawar, Pakistan

    • Thanks very much for your comment.

      I appreciate your valuable insight and obvious experience regarding this issue, especially regarding resettlement from Pakistan and clarification of numbers. I also wholeheartedly agree with your statement against Australia’s hypocrisy.

      I very much agree that resettlement isn’t the best option, with repatriation or security in the first country of asylum being much preferable. However, I am very sceptical about the possibility of those two options in countries such as Pakistan and Malaysia.

      I am sure you are aware of the ongoing ethic cleansing against Hazaras in Quetta, with a recent attack killing over 40 people only weeks ago. Pakistan has failed to protect these Hazaras (who are both Afghan and Pakistani). Furthermore, the Taliban have often targeted these people and many fear they will continue to be killed if they return to Afghanistan. I am very skeptical about the safety of Afghanistan once ISAF withdraw, and as such I don’t believe resettlement to Afghanistan is a durable solution at this time, even though there have been many repatriations.

      I also noted in my article that Pakistan was expire all POR cards from June 30. However, since this article was written, the deadline seems to have been extended – you may know more about this than me.

      For these people, mostly Hazaras, the options of resettlement to Afghanistan or staying in Pakistan both lead to continued persecution and targeted killings. For them, resettlement by UNHCR or simply by fleeing to another country seem like the only options. I agree this is not true for all Afghan refugees, as you point out.

      For other countries such as Malaysia or Thailand, they are not party to the Refugees Convention and do not provide protection to asylum seekers and refugees. Resettlement or repatriation are the only options there. Malaysia and Thailand have mostly Burmese refugees, and while the situation in Burma is improving, I don’t see repatriation to Burma as a durable solution yet, especially for the many minorities who are still being persecuted.

      It is from this perspective that I advocate for Australia to increase its resettlement program, along with the rest of the Western World. Of course, if Pakistan and Malaysia where to adequately protect these refugees, or if Burma and Afghanistan became safe again, these options would be much preferable.

  • Johnkilner

    The anonymous response above actually calls into question many of the assumptions underlying this essay. The nuanced and highly variable situations that refugees face. Why aren’t we debating more the role we could play in front line states? I appreciate the effort involved in reflecting on a highly complex issue. There’s just a little hubris here about Australia’s role and capacity. Can anyone point to a successful regional solution currently ? Anywhere? The political challenge of it is enormous , for the same old reasons. Yes, Vietnam in the 70s but the world, and the model used at the time , have changed . If Australia were to increase the numbers of asylum seekers given visas, would that decrease movement of boats? No evidence or logic to suggest it would . There’s just a little too much starry eyed idealism in much of the discussion around regional solutions.