The tragic discovery of 13 bodies 125 km from the coast of Christmas Island last week, with more than 50 people still unaccounted for, is a harsh reminder that government policies aiming to deter asylum seekers from taking dangerous boat journeys to Australia are failing.
Many asylum seekers and refugees in Central and Southeast Asia are in transit from their conflict-ridden home countries, such as Afghanistan, Burma, and Sri Lanka, to resettlement countries such as Australia.
People are forced to flee persecution with few options of escape without assistance from people smugglers, who can facilitate their journey and accompany them to safety.
The existence of people smugglers is a political reality states have a genuine interest in eradicating, as exploitative practices preying on desperate people cannot be accepted in a law-abiding society. But is punishing smugglers – who often assist asylum seekers and are their only way to safety – more important than protecting the asylum seekers and refugees themselves?
States throughout the region, including Australia, have increasingly sought to seal their borders by stemming what they believe to be ‘pull factors’ – forces that draw people to a new location – by resorting to punitive measures such as offshore processing, detention, and bureaucracies that makes it increasingly difficult to file asylum claims.
Australia’s current suite of policies, including offshore processing, mandatory detention, and the excision of all Australian territory from the migration zone, is designed to deter asylum seekers from arriving by boat. But the problem lies not with the insecurity of Australian borders, but in the lack of durable solutions for refugees elsewhere in the region.
The so-called ‘push factors’ (forces driving people from their homes) are stronger than ‘pull factors.’ Curbing ‘pull factors’ therefore only leads to greater human rights violations and despair.
The Opposition in Canberra ignores this inconvenient truth and claims changes to asylum policy made by the Rudd Government in 2008, such as the abandonment of offshore processing and Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) has led to the resurgence in boat arrivals. The Labor party now seem to agree.
But a growing body of research in Europe on the extent to which asylum seekers are able to exercise choice when it comes to their destination country, and their reasons for choosing certain countries over others, shows that “asylum seekers generally have limited options available to them, and choices are made within a very narrow field of possibilities.”
Generally, asylum seekers are not well informed on specific policies and procedures, and their decisions are limited by other factors such as “a lack of protection in the country of first asylum, geography, finances, available travel routes, visa options, and the networks and routes used by people smugglers,” according to Harriet Spinks, a researcher on Australia and migration policy.
A member of the government’s Expert Panel, Paris Aristotle, has called for an end to the political wrangling that has led to the current impasse in establishing a humane plan to manage the movement of asylum seekers through the region.
It is highly unlikely that a bipartisan deal will be struck this close to the election, with the incumbent Labor government insisting that the roadblock lies with the Opposition’s unwillingness to support the Malaysia Solution, where asylum seekers’ applications would have been processed in Malaysia, and the Liberals insisting that the only way to “stop the boats” is to tow them back to Indonesia.
No single measure will stop boat arrivals in Australia, and in fact ‘stopping the boats’ should not be the core objective of what is needed: a regional approach to managing the movements of people that places the protection of asylum seekers ahead of national politics and border protection.
A regional approach
As one of the most developed countries in the region, Australia offers the best capacity to protect refugees and take the lead in establishing a regional approach to asylum. But perceived national security interests and domestic politics have undermined its ability to lead by example. The current political impasse must be overcome and both sides of politics need to form a bipartisan approach before meaningful collaboration with other states can occur.
A regional approach to asylum must address the protection of refugees as a result of their onward movement, and it must be acknowledged that often the reason refugees continue to move onwards is the lack of protection in transit countries.
In Thailand, for example, refugees, including women and children, can be arrested and imprisoned at any time. Without the right to work, or any government institutions to assist them, refugees wait in limbo for years without any means of survival or the ability to legally become self-sufficient.
Cooperation, consistency, and subscribing to universally accepted standards of protection are the only way forward to ensure more equitable responsibility sharing for states and enhance protection for refugees transiting through the Asia Pacific region.
However, the root causes of displacement must be recognised and addressed too.
Standardising procedures means refugees would face the same treatment, no matter where they went. Increasing protection in transit countries, such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, will reduce the need for onward movement.
Asylum seekers and refugees need to be recognised as distinct from other migrants. They should be issued with temporary documents to avoid being detained under immigration laws, and be given temporary work permits and access to public utilities, including schools and hospitals.
Resettlement countries such as the U.S., Canada, and Australia should consider increasing their quotas for humanitarian visas, and work towards decreasing the waiting time for resettlement in transit countries.
The UNHCR must reduce and harmonise the waiting period for asylum seekers and refugees to be recognised, as well as ensuring that decisions are transparent and fair in accordance with UNHCR’s own procedural standards.
With increased funding for the provision of vital services such as healthcare, psychosocial support, legal assistance, and education, civil society can also play a vital role in strengthening refugee protection in the region.
A regional approach is possible if the political will can be found.
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