Prime Minister Julia Gillard spent some time with our friends across the Tasman over the weekend. The Prime Minister met with her New Zealand counterpart John Key in Queenstown for the annual Australia-New Zealand Leaders’ meeting. Among other things, the meeting triggered a warning to phone companies to bring down roaming charges or face regulations and also a $3 million pledge to try to develop a vaccine for rheumatic fever.
But it is the asylum seeker and refugee conundrum which will always garner the most attention in the media and tend to dominate talks with other nations in our region. And of course this trip was no exception.
Both the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers’ managed to reach a new deal with regard to refugees. It was agreed between the two leaders that New Zealand will accept and resettle 150 refugees from Australia. The agreement, commencing in January 2014 will see the transfer of genuine refugees from the Australian mainland and also the offshore immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.
On the face of it, the deal looks pretty ordinary, but at least like an attempt to deal with the movement of asylum seekers in the region. But it is not even close to a deal that understands the policy problem facing governments in the Asia-Pacific.
The deal fails in two key areas. First, it is an attempt to appear to be trying to do something in terms of the domestic policy situation surrounding refugee policy which is a fraught area for government. Second, it appears to be an attempt to deal with the regional nature of the asylum seeker equation which is a traditionally much more difficult part of the “solution” to reach agreement on.
Australia agreeing to send 150 refugees to New Zealand gives the appearance of acting on the domestic implications of irregular people movements. But in reality the deal will do nothing of the sort. It will not cut down the overcrowding of detention centres in Australia and our offshore facilities. The number, 150, is simply too low for that aim to ever be achieved.
Voters will know that it is the performance of a political illusion. It is an attempt to appeal to the irrational fear of outsiders that a number of our politicians seem all too willing to gently prompt with their often deliberate choice of language when describing maritime arrivals. Politicians care far too much about the votes in being tough on asylum seekers. In fact they should not be tough at all – there is no crime involved, so no punishment is required.
The pact reached at the weekend also fails the regional test. The deal, involving the transfer of genuine refugees from Australia to New Zealand is given the veneer of a regional solution, but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, the only thing remotely regional about the policy is that it involves more than one country in our region.
With the deal there will be no increase in the number of genuine refugees that New Zealand takes in on an annual basis. The 150 refugees that New Zealand will accept from 2014 will be a part of their annual intake of 750. That adds nothing to the regional quota and will still see a large number of boats arriving in Australia.
A significant addition to the refugee intake in the region is what is needed. And with a number of countries in Asia not signatories to the Refugee Convention, it is discussion to get those countries onboard, and a deal with New Zealand on a quota increase which is required to do anything significant about people movement in the region. Of course Australia has recently decided to increase its humanitarian quota, but the election result will likely see it return to the previous number.
But the regional part of the policy discussion is not the only important and meaningful part of the puzzle. Even those politicians with a keen interest in the regional dynamics of the discussion are missing the point. Far too often the regional options are discussed at the expense of the international. Refugee policy is an international problem because conflict is an international problem across all regions of the world.
The agreement contains two false attempts at pursuing refugee policy in a meaningful way, both domestically and regionally. Couple that with an international failure to acknowledge and deal with the movement of people in the early stages and you can be sure we will continue to see large numbers of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey to Australia by sea.