The issue of asylum seekers is, without a doubt, a complicated one. International law and emotive political rhetoric make it so. There are no hard and fast answers but there are, dare I say it, ways to truly move forward on the issue.
This week Oxfam released a briefing paper, sent to both sides of politics, called ‘Asylum Seekers – the way forward’. In it, we advocated a number of points that, implemented together, would help shape a long term, humane answer to an issue that Australia has not responded well to in the past.
Firstly, the paper calls for bipartisan support for a UNHCR-sanctioned regional protection framework and urges both Labor and the Coalition to resist shifting a difficult political issue to the too hard basket by favouring offshore processing centers as the cure-all approach. Instead, it asks both parties to build their approach upon a rock solid Australian commitment to upholding our international obligations and to treating asylum seekers humanely. This includes accepting responsibility for the processing of asylum seekers who enter our territory, including ending the farce of excised territory like Christmas Island and providing protection where required.
An effective regional protection framework must involve relevant countries and be sanctioned by the UNHCR. It should be complemented by a system that gives all asylum seekers the chance to have their claims fairly and swiftly assessed, no matter what country they are in.
Oxfam’s paper also calls on whoever wins the election to better support developing countries in our region with properly targeted aid, including tackling the causes of asylum seekers’ flight through conflict prevention, strengthening the ability of other countries to provide asylum seekers with fair and speedy assessments of their claims and supporting the establishment of humane reception arrangements for asylum seekers.
The briefing paper makes the point that a comprehensive regional approach could potentially include a regional processing centre or centres, but these should not be considered the only solution. Alternatives to detention should be explored in the development of any new processing arrangements. And, of course, solutions must be found for all who need protection.
In addition the paper advocates for strong standards for any regional processing centre including a humane environment, quick, fair and transparent processing, and that the centre should not undermine development in the host country. This means that any host country must be a signatory to the refugee convention and have the resources to fulfil their obligations under that convention.
It is important to note here as well that regional processing centres should not be designed to receive asylum seekers who have already made it to Australia. Transferring them offshore only serves to shift a politically difficult situation to poorer countries already struggling to provide essential services to their existing population.
Instead, a regional processing centre or centres as part of a broader regional protection framework could be used to help strengthen the processing of asylum claims within the region. This would help provide an alternative to making the long and dangerous boat journey to Australia.
As an international aid and development agency, Oxfam knows that there are serious and complex reasons behind many people’s decisions to risk hazardous journeys in search of a safer, better life for themselves and their families.
In places like Afghanistan, Oxfam works to try to help people who have been affected by decades of fighting and insecurity. But as has been demonstrated by the recent tragic deaths of Australian soldiers, Afghanistan is still not a safe place and there is no orderly queue at the airport for people who need to leave for their safety.
So people, fearing for the safety of their families, try to get out using whatever means they can. Often, as the statistics show, this means that they end up in a developing country. In our region, this can mean that asylum seekers in countries neighbouring Australia often live in very insecure positions.
In many cases, they can’t have their refugee claims processed, earn a living, or send their children to school. If they are processed and recognised as a refugee, they may continue to live in conditions of real hardship, denied the rights of other citizens.
It is little wonder that some feel they have no alternative but to undertake a risky boat journey to Australia. A comprehensive regional solution and the right type of support to our neighbours can help ease this.
Oxfam’s briefing paper released this week advocates common sense policies – although not all of them politically expedient – to complex issues, and it asks for humanity from our politicians as each political party sets out their vision for Australia and Australians.
Let’s truly move forward on the issue of asylum seekers – constructively, intelligently and with humanity.
This opinion editorial was first published in The Canberra Times on 2 August 2010.