Malcolm Turnbull was at the historic UN Summit on Refugees to tell everyone about our world-class effort, though it is doubtful world leaders took very much notice. Australia has unique circumstances, and thankfully, unique solutions. What we may see as our badge of honour, others may see as our badge of shame. Anyway, undaunted by UNHCR estimates of a burgeoning number, reckoned in 2015 at 65.3 million people displaced from their homes, the UN announced The New York Declaration, enunciating principles, promising aid, and plans to conclude a global compact on refugees and immigration in 2018.
Within hours, says Deutsche Welle:
- A UN aid convoy in Syria was bombed, leaving 12 aid workers dead; Kenya is closings the world’s largest refugee camp in Dadaab, pressuring refugees to return to Somalia; and one of the main points of arrival for refugees in Europe, the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos, is burnt down…
showing how desperate the situation is.
More talk than action, they said as the non-binding agreement got a mixed reception.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened the conference by calling on world leaders to commit to “upholding the rights and dignity of everyone forced by circumstance to flee their homes in search of a better life.”
That goes way further than people seeking refuge from persecution. In fact Ban Ki-moon sees refugees and migrants as offering potential benefits to recipient countries, rather than becoming a burden.
Aid groups and activists are frustrated by more talking, a frustration captured by the act of laying out 2500 life jackets on a lawn in London:
Between January 2015 and August this year, the UNHCR estimates that nearly 7,000 people drowned crossing the Mediterranean, many wearing jackets like these which were actually fake.
Many commentators think a new conceptualisation of the whole problem is necessary.
I have not been able to find a decent summary of what happened in the two days in New York. The best is perhaps Travis McLeod talking to Jonathon Green on RN Drive.
The UN summit launched the process to develop two global compacts, one on refugees and one on migration. Along the way there is some hope climate change will enter the thinking. McCleod says, though, that the focus was very much on the Middle East and Europe, whereas the 10 most vulnerable countries to sea level rise are in Asia, and Afghanistan is the second biggest generator of refugees, after Syria.
The second summit was hosted by Barack Obama. You only got a gig if you announced increased effort.
Our man pulled a bit of a con, according to Michelle Grattan.
The first part was a promise of A$130 million over three years for “peace-building and assistance to refugees, forcibly displaced communities and host countries”, which was fair enough and welcome as far as it goes.
The second was to announce that Turnbull’s government would promise to keep the promise made by Tony Abbott to lift our intake of refugees from 13,750 to 18,750 from mid-2018. That’s the con Grattan was talking about.
There was a third announcement of sorts. Some of our allocation will go towards Central American refugees, mainly from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras presently warehoused in Costa Rica. This was seen as especially helpful to the USA, but no, it would not be in return for taking some of the refugees on Manus Island and Nauru.
Alex Reilly at The Conversation discusses some of the implications. Here I’d like to raise three issues:
- How many refugees should we take?
- Should we turn back boats?
- What should happen to the refugees in Manus Island and Nauru?
We’ll start with the first.
How many refugees should we take?
McLeod pointed out that our current humanitarian intake of 13,750 is a about half what it was a decade ago relative to our migration intake. The LNP have agreed to lift that to 18,750 in 2018. Labor was aiming at 27,000 by 2025. The Greens want to go to 50,000.
Oxfam looked at the issue in August and suggested our fair share would be to lift the intake to 42,000 over five years.
A new benchmark for rich countries was set by Germany, which took a million in 2015. The CIA World Factbook gives their population as 80.723 million, ours at 22.993 million. Germany is 3.51 times as large. A similar intake would give us about 285,000.
It is noteworthy that in Germany the Bavarian Governor Horst Seehofer, currently the head of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), in an interview with Der Spiegel is driving hard for an upper limit of 200,000 total migration.
Turnbull keeps saying that our refugee intake as well as our migration intake can only be built politically on secure control of our borders, in other words, turning back boats.
I don’t know what the upper limit is, but I suspect Labor has it about right in terms of what the electorate will put up with, which is itself short of what a proper ethical position would suggest.
Also if the Greens policy were implemented there would be more boats coming through again. Sadly, I think the LNP and Labor are right in thinking the electorate would freak out.
Should we turn back boats?
Which raises the question as to whether we should turn back boats. According to an AP story on 22 June 2016, the LNP had turned back 28 boats carrying 734 people.
So the boats continue to come.
Generally little interest has been shown about what happens to refugees sent back. This article in June about the last boat from Vietnam says that boats have been sent back to Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Indonesia. Some Vietnamese ended up in jail, charged and prosecuted.
The Kaldor Centre suggests that what we are doing may be illegal by international law and in breach of our treaty obligations.
Apparently we use “enhanced screening procedures” to assess asylum seekers’ claims on board the boats. I think no-one can reasonably claim that these procedures are fair. The UNHCR suggest that they may be illegal.
Essentially it’s an abhorrent process, and a process Labor has signed up to which is justified in terms of the 1200 drownings that occurred on Labor’s watch.
It’s one reason why the asylum seeker issue is genuinely a wicked problem. Solving one aspect of the problem reveals or creates other problems.
What should happen to the refugees in Manus Island and Nauru?
Pretty simple, really. We should bring them all to Australia.
The Government is still blaming Labor for the mess. Three years on, the Government should fix it. Even the Australian Financial Review in an editorial says that Australia is becoming a pariah on the issue.
Labor says they would have had them settled within a year. I doubt that.
Peter Dutton says bringing them here will start the boats again. The boats have not entirely stopped, but if they keep being turned around there is no incentive to get on a boat. We don’t need to continue the persecution of nearly 2000 people to ‘send the message’.
At present we are sending a message that we will do almost anything to avoid resolving a situation we created.
Murderers know how long their terms in detention are to last, asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru do not.
Max Chalmers explains how Transfield, later rebadged Broad Spectrum to try to shed the public odium attracted by their initial efforts, made a mozza. The National Audit Office found that normal competitive tendering had been set aside in the rush to get the camps up and running.
Broad Spectrum has now been taken over by Spanish company Ferrovial.
It appears that early expectations a correct. Ferrovial and several other companies have made it clear that they will not tender for the work because of reputational, legal and financial risks.
Meanwhile private resettlement models are being trialled as an alternative way of bring refugees. Community organisations are able to sponsor potential applicants.
- Under this model, the families and community organisations bear not only the substantial costs of the visa applications (more than $30,000 plus additional costs for family members), but also provide practical resettlement assistance to new arrivals.
The resettled arrivals have immediate access to the public purse through Centrelink. The pilot model is thus very much nested in the public domain.
It has obvious advantages in terms of settling and integrating refugees. It’s probably not scalable, but cheaper than the high-cost psychological harm wrought by our offshore processing policy.