This morning the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) put out a statement calling on Australia particularly, as well as the international community to assist more in providing humanitarian assistance options to help stop asylum seekers taking “dangerous and exploitative boat journeys”.
The UNHCR, tasked with overseeing the provisions of the United Nations Convention on Refugees made these comments in response to the terrible tragedy overnight where an asylum seeker vessel capsized en route to Australia, with 3 confirmed dead, 110 rescued and approximately 9o people still missing.
This most recent tragedy again emphasises the need, like the refugee agency points out, for countries like Australia to do more and in some cases, at least something to cut down on the need for these desperate people to make the seriously dangerous journey in craft often not much more seaworthy than a large esky.
It is important to recognise that the refugee situation begins long before people reach Australia and while we can and should do more, we cannot be expected to take all of the burden, particularly after refugees who seek asylum by boat have made their journey often through and past other nations before arriving in Australia.
But this is only part of the story and but a part of the solution needed in an attempt to stop asylum seekers from risking their lives trying to find a better, safer life in places like Australia.
The High Commission for Refugees is itself part of the problem with processing though admittedly difficult, in many cases actually being very slow and leading to many refugees being stuck in limbo, whether that be in refugee camps dotted around the world in conflict zones or stuck in limbo in other ways.
The UNHCR do need more resources and time deployed in major conflict zones and countries facing humanitarian crises, but this is only the first step, however it is an undeniable aspect of the refugee situation that cannot be ignored.
It is also true the asylum seeker/refugee conundrum of refugees in camps within and near countries in turmoil is not just down to the slow action of the UNHCR in processing refugee claims.
Countries around the world that have signed the Refugee Convention are obviously too dragging the chain with absorbing the number of refugees currently awaiting relocation and asylum seekers that wish to seek protection in another country. This could be down to many reasons and the cost burdens particularly after the effects of the Global Financial Crisis and the continuing Euro crisis are factors that cannot be denied in the current debate over refugee relocation as far as some nations go.
This does not excuse the chain dragging prior to the financial events that have negatively impacted on economies around the world. There are obviously issues that have meant that prior to the financial events that have devastated countries around the world that as a result countries have not taken up the massive amounts of refugees around the world.
The scale of the refugee problem is massive and borders on the unsolvable at the very least at a political level with, as of 2010 a total of 43.3 million people worldwide who were either identified as refugees, internally displaced people (IDP’s), asylum seekers, returnees or stateless people.
No one government, no series of governments, no agencies, organisations, no one person or people will be able to guarantee that in the future nobody will get onto boats in desperation and head to various countries in the world. That is the sad reality. The potentially deadly situation can only be minimised.
The first part of any reduction to the refugee problem is that the remaining 50 odd nation states not signatory to the convention should be persuaded to sign on the dotted line, though some of these nations are where the asylum seeker situation begins and others are middle destinations where asylum seekers and genuine refugees can languish for years before making the journey to places like Australia.
Obviously another response to the issue is for nations around the world that are signatories to the convention, but not to the protocol to sign that and enshrine it in their respective domestic law and then make appropriate arrangements in accordance with those provisions too.
Obviously too, many nations could and should increase their intake of refugees and seek to undertake with the UNHCR to help with the massive processing task which stymies the refugee process from the outset and leaves many in desperation within their own countries or in other nations in their region.
These last two points need to include, in particular Malaysia and Indonesia signing and adopting the Refugee Convention provisions and the protocol into their own law because these two nations are often the final stopping point and often the destinations from which asylum seeker vessels embark on the perilous journey towards Australia.
Other countries in our region that are signatories to the Refugee Convention and its protocol must also increase their share of the processing of asylum seekers and refugees and we must continue to work harder under the Bali Process as a region to deal with the movement of people who have found themselves in dire circumstances.
Another ingredient in the global recipe to cut down on the deaths of asylum seekers is for nations to truly tackle people smuggling. But this alas is made all the more complicated by the immense coastlines of the nations from where refugees come to Australia. It is also made difficult because of levels of police corruption and complicity in the criminal act which have been found to exist in the region when it comes to the asylum seeker trade plied by these individuals and groups.
The final part of the puzzle is that Australia must increase our intake of refugees, at least by a similar extent to the increase we would have taken in under the so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’. This simply has to be seen as a reality if we really view people drowning at sea as a problem and we should.
The problem is not just an Australian one and becomes a bigger situation for Australia to deal with once refugees and asylum seekers reach our region and that needs to be recognised by other nations and the UNHCR before implying Australia above others particularly in our region needs to bear responsibility for stopping people getting on boats and coming here. Other nations in our region simply go close to ignoring the asylum seeker plight and the people smuggling that comes with it altogether.
Sadly, the scale of the task that is dealing with refugees in a fast, efficient and orderly way is astronomical and the process time consuming with the sheer numbers already seemingly well beyond reach of being able to deal with. However, we have to as a nation, a region and as an international community all try to minimise the risks of asylum seekers dying at sea.
Policies on people coming to live in Australia, whether in desperate circumstances or as migrants hoping to make the most of opportunities that Australia has to offer continue to veer toward the insane and abhorrent, even appealing to the xenophobic in some cases. Under the Prime Ministership of Julia Gillard the ALP veered even to the right of the Liberal Party on asylum seeker policy, thankfully failing in getting through the so-called ‘Malaysian Solution’ because of two disparate political parties, the Greens and the Liberal/National Party Coalition.
In roughly the same period of time, we have also been reminded that the Coalition would also like to see asylum seeker boats turned around if safe to do so, slammed by many.
But today we have had the Liberal Party remind us again that temporary protection visa’s, TPV’s for short would be reinstated under a future Coalition Government.
The granting of TPV’s was used as part of the Howard Government ‘Pacific Solution’ which saw boat arrivals dramatically reduced in the early 2000’s until the government lost power in 2007.
The announcement went even further too with a new policy announcement by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and his Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison.
Today it was announced at the press conference held by the two representatives of the Coalition that asylum seekers arriving without identity papers or a passport should not be given refugee status in Australia. The exact wording being that there would be a “strong presumption” that people arriving in Australia without any form of identification would not be given refugee status.
The stance on TPV’s and on the denial of refugee status to people arriving without documentation is problematic.
Visas granting temporary protection assume that in the event a conflict ends within a nation where a refugee has come to Australia from that they will no longer face persecution in that country and in many cases this is just not the reality, persecution of particular ethnic groups can still continue even when broader tensions have ceased.
Of course though, people who wish to return to their country of origin, if they feel it safe to do so, should be able to make that journey home of their own volition.
There too are problems with denying refugee status to asylum seekers that arrive in our waters without papers which will make them more easily identifiable to Australian authorities assessing their claims.
The first is that in many cases their papers are confiscated by the very people who are plying this horrific trade in human misery, the people smugglers themselves.
Second, where will these asylum seekers be sent when there claims are denied by the government because of having no papers? They cannot be refouled simply because they didn’t have papers, they would need to be sent to another country where they would be free from persecution at least until the veracity of their claims was able to be properly assessed even if made much harder by the lack of documentation.
Put simply, this policy takes the Malaysian asylum seeker deal and says, “Hah I have a stronger hand. So much stronger that it will make yours look like child’s play”.
Very few people deny that the trade of people smugglers needs to be broken, it sure does. But this is simply not the way to do it, using people in this situation as a political football. Both the asylum seeker deal with Malaysia and this increasingly strengthened Coalition policy are und0ubtedly deterrents, but they are the wrong kind of deterrent that could see people needing protection denied that.
What is needed is global action as well as a regi0nal solution where the processing of refugee claims in countries of origin are sped up through concerted global action involving all nations and the agencies charged with assessing refugee claims.
More countries in our region too need to urgently sign and ratify the Refugee Convention so that asylum seeker numbers can be shared around the region more while we still do our fair share.
Indeed an Australian solution is also needed where we increase the numbers we take directly from conflict hot spots and from camps in our region before people get on incredibly shoddy vessels putting themselves at risk of perishing at sea.
It’s a tricky situation but the one-upmanship has to stop and solutions which help vulnerable people and convince them against making expensive and unsafe boat journeys simply have to trump policies which above anything punish these people and put them in further danger.