In a little over a month's time, a high level meeting to address large movements of refugees and migrants will take place at the UN general assembly in New York. President Obama will host the leaders summit that will call for all member states to pledge their commitment to the international protection of refugees.
Much work has already gone into this event with the UN appointment of a special adviser back in January to work with member states and other stakeholders. Some have even dared hope it will mark a shift from the focus on refugees as a border problem for individual countries to an international issue that needs a coordinated international response.
However, Australia goes into this event heavily handicapped with a much-criticised policy of forcing all asylum seekers who arrive by boat into offshore detention. This week The Guardian newspaper published the Nauru files, a cache of leaked documents detailing 2000 shocking and alarming incidents, many involving children, at the Nauru detention centre. Last week, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released the results of a joint, undercover investigation into the same facility. It found the 1200 men, women and children held on the island nation suffered severe abuse, inhumane treatment and neglect. There have also been damning reports from the Human Rights Commission, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a Senate Select Committee, and a government-appointed independent expert.
Most Australians would say their nation respects, protects and promotes human rights as universal values. But that is not what the world sees when it examines asylum seeker policies.
When viewed in the context of Australia's migration program overall, the numbers involved in offshore detention are relatively small. As of 30 April, there were 1367 asylum seekers on Nauru and 898 on Manus Island. Compare this to Australia's annual intake of 13,750 refugees and other migrants on humanitarian grounds. This puts Australia in 25th place in terms of size of refugee intake overall, or 32nd per capita and 47th relative to total GDP, according to the Australian Refugee Council .
But right now, when the international community thinks about Australia and refugees, it finds it difficult to look past offshore detention and boat turn-backs.
So what can be done? Surely it is not beyond the reach of our policy makers to develop a humane solution to resettle these asylum seekers in a safe environment, especially the women and children.
There are great success stories of refugees settled in Australia. For example, Nhill in rural Victoria has settled around 150 Karen refugees from Myanmar with the support from local businesses, service providers and community leaders. The Karen community in Nhill now contributes considerably to the local economy.
However there has also been plenty of resistance. Ten years ago, James Treloar, a Tamworth councillor who was strongly opposed to the settlement of five Christian Sudanese refugee families, referred to them as 'lawbreakers’ and potential sex offenders. More recently, the anti-immigration sentiment evident in Europe, and which helped deliver the Republican presidential nomination to Donald Trump, also played a role in the 2016 Australian election. Pauline Hanson's One Nation party, which wants zero net migration, has secured four Senate seats and is once again a force to be reckoned with.
While one senses the bipartisan support among the major parties for offshore detention is uneasy, at least on Labor's part, it mostly held firm in the recent election campaign with only the occasional protest from the likes of the Labor candidate for Melbourne, Sophia Ishmail, who unsuccessfully challenged the sitting MP, the Greens' Adam Bandt. Back in the 2013 election, the Greens ran on a policy of closing down detention centres but this year the party was largely silent on the issue.
However there are alternatives that could – and should – be usefully debated. These include granting those now in offshore detention temporary protection onshore so they can access education, employment and healthcare. Such pathways could proceed in parallel with Operation Sovereign Borders. The Australian government is understandably concerned that complementary pathways might encourage more asylum seekers to come to Australia with associated security risks. However we could continue to 'Stop the boats' while releasing refugees into the community and allowing them complementary pathways. Intelligence sharing, border control and community engagement are there to protect our national borders.
Asylum seeker policy should be broad. It should involve all relevant government departments, civil society, supplementary service providers, entrepreneurs, and the business sector.
Australia needs to present to the world a whole-of-nation approach.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Takven