Asylum deal shameful and inhumane
12 May 2011
Professor Sandy Gifford
This opinion piece first appeared in The Age on 12 May 2011
PEOPLE swapping with Malaysia is not an effective or humane way to stop people smuggling. Trading in people is a shameful plan that serves only to further diminish Australia's increasingly shaky commitment to its human rights obligations. We need to begin by opening a dialogue within the Asia-Pacific region that is co-operative and does not have combating the smuggling of people at its centre.
Australia does not have a refugee crisis. In 2010 we received only 2 per cent of the 385,000 asylum claims made to the 44 countries of the industrialised world, ranking 15th. Forced migration is a global issue not unique to Australia. Last year, asylum claims rose in Australia and other Western countries. However, taking a longer-term view, over the past 10 years asylum claims made in Australia have dropped by a third.
The real crisis is for the millions of men, women and children who have no other choice but to flee their homes and seek safety elsewhere. They are turning to the international community because their own countries either cannot or will not provide protection to their own citizens. This crisis is heightened because the industrial world is rapidly closing its borders to people who seek international protection.
Advertisement: Story continues below According to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Asia-Pacific region had the greatest increase in people who became refugees, a 7 per cent rise in 2009 compared with all other regions. These people have fled from some of the most conflict-ridden countries in the region - a region where few countries have signed the Refugee Convention.
Malaysia hosts 90,000 refugee and asylum seekers but it is not party to the Refugee Convention, which makes these people highly vulnerable. In 2009, Malaysia was the fourth-highest destination country for asylum seekers, most of them from Burma.
People continue to flee persecution in Burma, with large numbers in Thailand and at least 200,000 languishing in Bangladesh, all with no viable solution in sight. This puts Australia's refugee crisis into context and makes the people-swap with Malaysia short-sighted. It is a missed opportunity for beginning a dialogue about a sustainable regional protection solution.
A focus on people smuggling is misplaced. People smuggling is a symptom - it is a response to forced migrants having no other options. Instead, the protection, well-being and human rights of refugees and asylum seekers must be at the centre of a robust and consistent approach to durable solutions around the Asia-Pacific region.
A regional dialogue would work towards a co-operative framework that emphasises border management, not border protection, and would strike a balance between security and humanitarian imperatives. It would work towards a decentralised, equitable and accessible system for accepting and assessing asylum claims in the countries where people are seeking asylum, including in Australia.
Sharing responsibility would work towards ensuring that asylum seekers have their human rights protected while their claims are being assessed and this includes being able to live in the community without fear and with dignity. This would entail no detention centres, no transferring our irregular maritime arrivals to other countries and a timely, fair and humane regional system for meeting the needs of refugees, asylum seekers and other forced migrants.
A regional co-operative protection framework would also address the upstream causes of forced displacement with a view towards developing effective polices that address the root causes.
Australia should take the lead in this important endeavour. It is reprehensible for Australia to turn its back on this humanitarian challenge by focusing on narrow short-term solutions.
We have recorded consecutive years of economic growth since 1992, we largely escaped the global financial crisis and our political leaders continually remind us how our economy remains the ''envy of the developed world''. We have the capacity and humanitarian obligations to accept many more refugees and to shoulder more of the burden when it comes to protection and assistance to asylum seekers. We can do better.
The big question is: will Australia rise to this challenge? We certainly have the capacity but more leadership is required. Our political leaders - both parties - have the moral courage and strategic intelligence to take a different direction to the regional humanitarian crisis of forced migration, but are not exercising their wealth and power.
The Australian government has been monitoring the refugee/asylum seeker situation in Malaysia for some time, due to concerns around the movement of these people to Australia. While it is a positive move for Australia to resettle more refugees living in Malaysia, it is doing so by exploiting Malaysia's anxieties around its existing refugee and asylum seeker population.
Refugees and asylum seekers are not tradeable commodities to be swapped, sold or smuggled. Indeed, they are our future - they are part of our regional neighbourhood and deserve a solution that builds the kind of community we envisage for ourselves now and for generations to come.
Professor Sandy Gifford is director of the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre, Dr Ignacio Correa-Velez is deputy director, and Dr Celia McMichael is a research fellow.
Contact: LaRRC, La Trobe Refugee Research Centre
Phone: 03 9479 5874
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