Is a regional solution for asylum seekers possible?

By Asher Hirsch | 09 Jul 13

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.