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Our responsibility, their rights

Our responsibility, their rights

By Jennifer Ashton

A response to the anonymous public servant (APS) who penned “An alternative response to asylum seeker and refugee issues”.

As APS has noted, we in Australia have reached a seeming impasse on dealing with asylum seekers. APS has outlined what s/he calls “political realities” of hardline positions on stopping the boats versus the humanitarian concern of those opposing their position.

While I appreciate APS’s thoughtfulness in trying to find practical solutions, there are other issues that must also be considered. I write as a social worker for 23 years with UNHCR who served in a number of difficult emergency and protracted refugee situations in Asia, Africa and Europe.

50KBasylum-seekers logo
Cartoon by Ditchburn, INKCINCT

Australia is a signatory to the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which it acceded under a Menzies government. Whilst there is significant debate around the relevance of a convention designed primarily to deal with the aftermath of World War Two and displaced persons in Europe, it is nonetheless THE universal agreement to which a number of countries, including Pakistan, Malaysia and Indonesia have yet to accede.

Under the convention a person has the right to seek asylum in another country if they fear persecution in their country of origin. If an asylum seeker is deemed to be a refugee, then the host country should make every effort to “assimilate and naturalise” him/her. Those found not to be refugees would be returned to their country of origin.

Currently Australia has a much larger legacy of its many and rapidly varied boat deterrence policies than just the 2000 (approximately) people on Manus and Nauru.

There are also some 28,000 so-called “illegal maritime arrivals” in Australia on bridging visas (E) awaiting refugee status determination. Before 2011, these IMAs, if found to be refugees, could obtain a permanent protection visa and a pathway to eventual citizenship. The earliest of the IMAs on bridging visas reached Australia in 2011, yes five years ago. The last came just before the announcement that in January 2014 Australia would no longer accept IMAs and that they would be relocated to a regional processing centre.

The Minister has estimated that it may take a decade to process those people in Australia. Even when they are processed they will be eligible for a three-year temporary protection visa (TPV), which will then be reviewed for possible renewal. The TPV does not entitle the holder to any permanent visa, nor to basic rights such as family reunion.

Australia is the only country in the world to offer a temporary protection in these circumstances.

We cannot trade the rights of these 30,000 people inscribed in international agreements (and our obligations under the convention) for the possible loss of rights for “indigenous communities, women, LGBTI, wealth distribution and social welfare in general”.

Remember, although the numbers fluctuate a little, usually only a small proportion of asylum applicants in Australia arrive by boat. Most arrive by air with a valid visa and then go on to pursue asylum claims. While the number of boat arrivals rose substantially before the current “lull”, even in high arrival years they still comprised just over half of onshore asylum seekers in Australia.

Boat arrivals are in fact more likely to be recognised as refugees than those who have arrived by air. For example, the final protection visa grant rate for asylum seekers from the top country of citizenship for boat arrivals (Afghanistan) has varied between about 96% and 100% since 2009; while the final protection visa grant rate for those applying for asylum from one of the top countries of citizenship for air arrivals (China) is usually only around 20 to 30%.

Australian border officials have worked quietly and closely with counterpart authorities in the region and civil aviation authorities so that air arrival numbers are dropping. For example, Indonesia now forbids entry without a visa for citizens of Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, three of the largest refugee producing countries.

Resettlement not open to many

A word too about resettlement. Resettlement is the process by which refugees are taken from their first country of asylum to a third country. There are fewer than 30 countries worldwide which have a formal annual resettlement program; only three of these countries – USA, Canada and Australia – have an intake of more than 1000 annually.

On the other hand, European countries are more likely to take refugees who have arrived directly – and the number can be very large. In 1992 there were 672,000 asylum applicants, most from former Yugoslavia. In 2006, a year of relative peace, about 200,000 asylum seekers arrived in Europe, but in 2015 with the Syrian and Iraqi crises, the numbers had soared to 1.3 million.

It is not likely that any other country with the notable exception of New Zealand, would be open to the possibility of resettling refugees from Manus and Nauru, which is seen as Australia’s responsibility. It is possible that there could be a swap deal, with a resettlement country taking these refugees in return for Australia accepting a group potentially embarrassing to them.

Neither Indonesia nor Malaysia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention. In effect this means that refugees are not recognised or protected and are treated as illegal arrivals in those countries.

Malaysia is in the grips of a much larger immigration issue with an estimated 1-2 million undocumented migrants living there, some of whom may very well have refugee claims. As the wealthiest country in the region, Malaysia attracts many economic migrants from countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. Plantation agriculture and construction would collapse without their labour. But these “illegals” live an insecure existence, subject to possible exploitation and arrest/deportation.

Don’t forget the ‘invisibles’ who also wait

Now, having had my say on international principles and practice, let me turn to specific proposals by APS. And, of course, I would agree with him/her that the refugees on Manus and Nauru should be returned to Australia for processing, taking up the NZ offer if appropriate. But remember also the invisible 28,000, who should be processed more rapidly and, if found to be refugees, should be given permanent protection!

Boat arrivals have dwindled. A longer-term solution for boat arrivals is to work within and with the region on strengthening border controls, immigration processes and respect for a refugee regime. For too long, ad hoc decision-making has dominated the Australian approach to a regional problem. A presumption that countries can be bought has already backfired in Cambodia and the Philippines.

People smuggling will never be eradicated while there are people fleeing war, violence or poverty. It can only be controlled by regional cooperation.

Finally, I would agree to increased resettlement as an alternative avenue for refugees, but I would caution that 50,000 is a very ambitious target, not even reached by the USA, by far the leading resettlement country, in the past few years.

There should be a significant boost to the capacity of settlement services in Australia and to funding for refugees. They are unlikely to be wholly illiterate and innumerate as the Minister would have it, but are still people who will need our support as they establish themselves and their families…for the betterment of Australia a generation and several from now.

– Jennifer Ashton, CLA member, Canberra


  1. Would it not be a real solution to refuse to be part of the invasion of the middle east which has resulted in leaving these countries much worse than when they entered. There was no legimate invasion of those countries and we have been complicit in destroying them. The people are fleeing homelessness,poverty and starvation. Surely the UN knows this and the perpetrators of USA and UK governments have funded the rise of ISIS and this is a well known fact .

    Meg Thornton

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