The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict has dominated world news for days now, as thousands of people fleeing persecution try to get to a number of European nations. Some of these nations have pledged to contribute to addressing the resettlement issue, some with more meaningful contributions than their regional neighbours. It is as if there was no preparation for, or expectation of a mass people movement brought about by the conflict.
But as with every other refugee situation, this is a global situation which needs a worldwide response. But that does not mean that individual nations cannot make their own decisions about how many refugees to aid. The point is though, that all need to help. This includes Australia.
But it seems that Tony Abbott does not want to help. His language so far this week indicates that he has decided there is effectively a ‘no vacancy’ sign shining brightly for the world’s most desperate people to see. As a result, it is now laid bare for all to see that ‘stopping the boats’ is not about cutting down the number of asylum seeker deaths which happen at sea, but a far more sinister attempt to appeal to the crowd that thinks we should not accept outsiders in almost any case. And in terms of situations where a country should help people, this current event is one of the clearest examples of when to do so.
It has been heartening to see at least a couple of members of the Coalition saying publicly that we need to help some of the Syrian asylum seekers. The most striking and also highest ranking example being minister and National Party MP, Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister is someone who is known for a bit of a dislike of foreign capital in terms of farmland. The other example being Craig Laundy, an MP from a marginal seat with ethnic diversity, whom you would expect to have a more sympathetic view.
Leaving aside abolishing offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, there are three things which could be done in terms of refugee policy in this country, with an eye to playing our part in dealing with this emergency. However, it is likely none of these policies will be enacted, at least until a change of government. The three main options are a significant increase in the yearly quota, to a number closer to 30,000 or above, a temporary spike in the number of refugees we accept, or a more flexible policy which focuses on helping people from current and emerging conflicts.
A permanent increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake would help absorb some of the strain caused by the displacement of people across the globe. The increase would have to number in the thousands to have any meaningful impact and would have to be coupled with greater regional and global cooperation on the matter. This is also the least politically palatable option, which is a real shame.
One of the easiest things the Coalition Government could have done is said to the Australian people that we need to accept a temporary spike in our refugee intake. It is a small fringe element within our community who would not accept such a reasonable policy prescription. A temporary spike could last a year, or a number of years and that increase would solely be made up of refugees who have been forced out of Syria. Again though, the problem is too big to be overlooked at a regional and international level, and that is the hardest part of the equation.
A more permanent way of contributing to the management of this and other refugee events which may emerge over time is to gear our almost our entire humanitarian intake toward managing the flow of asylum seekers from current and emerging conflicts. This is a flexible approach which can be managed as new movements of displaced people occur. It also largely removes the politics as it would be impossible to sensibly argue that those we would be helping are not the exact definition of a refugee. Yet again though, world thinking needs to be aligned.
It seems however that we are destined for regressive and repressive thinking domestically, at least for the time being. And our wilful inaction, coupled with the same dastardly inaction from other countries, will mean people who are so obviously suffering are still dying at sea.
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.