Towards a new Australian refugee policy: does the UN Global Compact provide a way forward?

By Dr Michael Henry AM | 28 Feb 19
Flickr Creative Commons: Foreign and Commonwealth Office

In November last year, Australia was one of 176 countries which endorsed the UN Global Compact on Refugees. This Compact was then presented to the General Assembly in December by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The Compact has four key objectives. The first is to ease pressure on countries hosting refugees. Many countries that find themselves suddenly hosting large influxes of refugees will be able to call on UNHCR to activate support platforms which will involve other countries assisting to mobilize financial, material and technical assistance, as well as resettlement pathways for the admission of refugees to third countries. The second is to enhance refugee self-reliance by assisting host countries to provide refugees with access to employment and education and enable them to live productively while they are away from their home countries. Thirdly, the Compact will expand access to third country solutions through more resettlement opportunities (student scholarships, family reunification). Finally, it will support conditions in countries of origin to enable the voluntary return of refugees in safety and dignity–the preferred solution for most refugees.

The Compact also acknowledges the need for the international community to address the environmental impact of hosting refugee populations, including promotion of the use of alternative energy and innovative technology.

As Australia heads towards a Federal election in 2019, now is the time to call for a commitment from any future Federal Government to use this new agreement to help build a sustainable and comprehensive global, regional and domestic refugee protection framework.

Australia should contribute purposefully to the Compact as it has the potential to transform the way the international community prevents and responds to refugee crises. As a refugee re-settlement country, Australia can and should make a positive contribution. More than a quarter of Australia’s current population was born overseas, with some 20 percent of these having arrived since 2012.

Designed to provide a ‘practical workable model’ and ‘a set of tools’ that translates the principle of shared, international responsibility for refugees, Australia could also use the Compact as the basis for new domestic refugee protection systems and policy-making.

Effective resolution of the challenges faced by refugees and asylum seekers requires global perspectives, regional solutions, and local Australian political action. The greatest burden of accommodating refugees and asylum seekers falls on developing countries that are compelled to provide sanctuary for those fleeing conflict and/or persecution. In 2017, 85 percent of the world’s refugees under UNHCR’s mandate (about 16.9 million people), were hosted by developing regions. By comparison, very few seek refuge in Australia. In 2018-19, Australia has allocated 18,750 places to its refugee and humanitarian program.

Furthermore, since the introduction of mandatory detention of refugees and asylum seekers, and offshoreprocessing, Australia has been regularly criticised by the UN and human rights organisations. Between June 2017 and July last year, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Arbitrary Detention published five opinions critical of Australia’s open-ended detention of asylum seekers and refugees. In 2017, former UNHCR regional representative in Canberra, Thomas Albrecht, said UNHCR and others had, for years, ‘highlighted the overwhelmingly negative toll on human lives’ of Australia’s refugee system. (The Guardian, 2017)

In order to build a sustainable and comprehensive protection framework globally, regionally and domestically, any future Australian Government needs to continue to play a positive role in seeking to address the current global crises regarding refugees and asylum seekers. It must fully consult with the Australian community about the importance and potential application of the Global Compact for Refugees, and in consultation with civil society and relevant UN agencies, continue to forge a strategic dialogue with countries in our region to develop feasible regional responses to refugee and asylum seeker problems. These should address respective responsibilities for transit hosting, processing and accepting of refugees and asylum seekers who enter the region. The Bali Process, a forum for information sharing and practical cooperation to deal with people smuggling, human trafficking and related transnational crime, and initiatives such as the Asia Dialogue on Forced Migration, a leading expert group on issues of forced migration in the region, provide vehicles for such dialogue.

It is important for the future Australian Government to review the alignment of asylum seeker policies with other foreign policy objectives, and continue Australia’s commitment to a generous and expanded resettlement program for refugees and asylum seekers. Meanwhile, it must also ensure that Australia maintains robust immigration and border protection mechanisms to prevent the efforts of people traffickers, but treat all refugees and asylum seekers equitably and in accordance with international refugee law and human rights law–thereby reinforcing Australia’s steadfast commitment to strengthening the rules-based international order.

The Australian Government must also review the refugee protection legislative framework in Australia with a view to reinstating the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees as an important reference point for status determination arrangements, to ensure that the Convention once again serves the purpose intended through Australia’s accession to that instrument.

Importantly and urgently, the Australian Government, whether present or future, must immediately close the offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and provide at least temporary protection in Australia of those individuals who cannot yet be repatriated safely or resettled to another country. Along with this, it must facilitate and support the work of UNHCR and promote research and educational projects in Australia on international refugee and statelessness issues.

Effective resolution of the challenges of refugees and asylum seekers requires the Australian Government to fully commit to the principle of international responsibility sharing, and fully abide by Australia’s international legal responsibilities. This includes the proper care and protection of spontaneously arriving refugees and asylum seekers in Australia.

A panel discussion, Towards a New Australian Refugee Policy: Does the UN Global Compact provide a way forward? will be held at the Immigration Museum, on 14 March 2019.

Erika Feller, UNAA Goodwill Ambassador for Refugees and Asylum Seekers will lead this discussion along with Paris Aristotle AO, Chair of the Settlement Services Advisory Council, Dr Sonja Hood, CEO, Community Hubs Australia and Fiona Patten, MP, Leader of Reason Australia.

Tickets are available here.