The ins and outs of a regional solution for refugees


Asia PacificA regional framework in Asia-Pacific on asylum seekers is a frequently supported policy. The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers of 2012 said 'a regional cooperation and protection framework' should shape policymaking. Support also exists among academics and NGOs such as the Refugee Council of Australia.

According to the ALP website, 'A Shorten Labor Government will take a leadership role within South East Asia and the Pacific to build a regional humanitarian framework to improve the situation of asylum seekers.' At the same time, the ALP maintains the option of turning back boats.

So what would a regional framework look like? And would such a framework be compatible with the major parties' existing policies?

Under a regional framework Australia would cooperate with Indonesia, Malaysia and potentially other states to ensure asylum seekers receive needed protection across the region.

With protection standards across the region improved under the framework, asylum seeker boat arrivals to Australia (and 'secondary movement' around the region) would decrease. This is because people would not need to move around the region searching for protection.

As Monash University lecturer in international relations Dr Anne McNevin put it on Inside Story in July 2013, this approach would 'prevent perilous boat journeys by removing the need to take them'.

Fast, efficient and fair claims processing is fundamental to any regional solution. The same uniform process would apply regardless of where in the region an asylum claim is made.

Currently processing takes place 'offshore' for those coming to Australia by boat. This concept of 'offshore processing' would disappear under a regional approach and be replaced with the principle: processing is the responsibility of the country in which an asylum seeker first arrived.

Malaysia and Indonesia would assume much of the processing burden, being countries in the region with significant asylum seeker arrivals. But Australia would still be responsible for processing onshore those asylum seekers who arrive here directly from countries not party to the framework.

Asylum seeker boats making 'secondary' journeys around the region could be intercepted (whether they be travelling to Australia or elsewhere) and returned to whichever framework country they departed from. This is consistent with processing being the responsibility of countries of first arrival.

To be clear, this measure is very different from current boat turn backs. That policy has scant regard for the safety of persons; whereas here interception would be to protect life at sea, and facilitate processing in line with an effective regional regime.

Responsibility for resettling genuine refugees will be a contentions aspect. It is here that Australian goodwill is necessary to get any agreement across the line. Australia, at least initially, must assume a large responsibility for resettlement equivalent to its economic prosperity.

Under the 2011 Malaysia Solution, Australia agreed to resettle 4000 refugees currently living in Malaysia (in exchange, Malaysia would receive 800 asylum seekers from Australia for processing within Malaysia). These arrangements did not proceed following a decision of the High Court invalidating aspects.

Notwithstanding this, the Malaysia Solution demonstrates an important point: that when Australia is willing to permanently resettle refugees, our regional neighbours may be more willing to assume the processing load.

Real protection for asylum seekers must underpin the framework for it to be palatable from a human rights perspective. So the framework would require all parties to guarantee refugees (and those seeking asylum) basic work and residency rights.

This is necessary because, as the Refugee Council observed in a 2013 policy brief: 'Most countries of asylum [in Asia-Pacific] remain unwilling to consider local integration as an option and, in some cases, are adopting an increasingly restrictive and hostile attitude towards people seeking protection'.

Australia could contribute funding to other parties to facilitate improving protection standards. It may also fund non-government organisations in their work with refugees in the region.

Such a commitment to protect, cooperate and capacity build is what distinguishes a truly regional framework from a Malaysia Solution style people swap.

None of this is beyond the realms of possibility. Professor Tim Lindsey, an expert in Indonesian law at Melbourne University Law School, was quoted in The Monthly in February 2014 saying 'Indonesia has been waiting a long time for a serious proposal that would put it front-and-centre of a regional solution.'

The first move then could be negotiating a bilateral agreement with Indonesia, which later forms the basis for cooperative arrangements across the region. But there are many obstacles.

Among them is Indonesia's perception that Australia's boat turn backs policy is a threat to its sovereignty. Former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa's comments in January 2014 reflect this: 'Indonesia rejects and is against the policy of boat turn backs because it's not a solution.'

We must ask: Will Indonesia engage with us on this issue while we unilaterally turn boats toward their shores?

Other relevant questions are: What would it take for our neighbours to recognise basic work and residency rights for those seeking asylum? Is Australia prepared to lead by increasing resettlement numbers to get an agreement across the line?

Right now Australia must ensure existing policy is compatible with a regional approach. When diplomatic conditions are right for an agreement there would thus be minimal obstacles on our side to making all this work.

Samuel TyrerSam Tyrer is a lawyer based in Melbourne. He has taught in the law program at the Australian Catholic University, Melbourne campus. Later this year, Sam will commence his Master of Laws (LLM) focusing on international law and human rights.

Topic tags: Samuel Tyrer, regional processing, refugees, asylum seekers, Indonesia



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Existing comments

It's all nonsense of course, it's all about don't dare come here and has nothing to do with protection in the region. It would cost Australia tens of billions a year to force other nations to do what we won't do and it is absurd. There is nothing illegal or unsafe about taking boats, that is the lie we tell ourselves to avoid all obligations.

Marilyn | 06 August 2015  

Good article Sam. Keep it up.

Jim Jones | 07 August 2015  

Personaally I think it's time that we Australians, who feel the shame in the way our pollies are treating the refugees, kick arse and form a concerned group and take the Government to task and demand a better deal for the asylum seekers! Too much talk and NO action from the bunch of "talk'n'no doers" in Canberra!

Murray J Greene | 07 August 2015  

A "Regional solution", even if effected, is still a 'stop-gap' solution. It is time to start moves to 'bite the bullet', and dismantle the concept of 'sovereign borders' and 'sovereign states', whereby entitlement is conceded to act in inhumane ways towards 'others' or even citizens within ones state. With the existence of totalitarian states exercising 'veto' over international laws that might impinge on their practices, this might prove difficult to implement, but if a coalition were formed, of 'those willing' to unite in promoting such ideas, pressure would mount on the 'unwilling' and hopefully reduce the need for refugees to flee their homeland and seek asylum elsewhere.

Robert Liddy | 07 August 2015  

Thanks Sam for this hopeful option as a solution to this difficult issue. Lets hope we have the capacity to make a commitment to protect, cooperate and capacity build.

Bernie | 07 August 2015  

I suggest appointing Sam Tyrer as 'Ambassador and Commissioner for Asylum Seekers and Refugees', with a mandate to lead efforts to establish a regional framework along the lines which he has proposed here. This makes a lot of sense and has great potential for a humane and sustainable solution which would do much to improve our relationships with our neighbours.

Richard Hallett | 07 August 2015  

Well, we all know how Labor likes to spend taxpayers' money in the dreamtime. Frankly, it is time we thought of spending money on saving the lives of women, victims of domestic violence, and of getting the homeless off the streets, but perhaps those objectives don't attract big government funding.

shirley McHugh | 07 August 2015  

Thank you Sam for explaining that such a proposal has been made by academics since 2013. I have long proposed processing asylum seekers in Indonesia (with Indonesia's approval) as an alternative way to save lives by taking to the sea on people smugglers' boats. A truly regional cooperative solution embracing more countries would be even better.

Ern Azzopardi | 07 August 2015  

Thanks, Sam, for an analysis of policy beyond the screaming headlines of Boat Turnbacks, and without presuming to cast aspersions about the alleged motives of politicians. At last someone has started to join the dots between “international cooperation, not unilateral action”, “the rescue of vessels in distress at sea”, “increasing the humanitarian intake to 27,000”, increased funding of $450m to UNHCR, increased aid to source and transit countries, and boat turnbacks, all in Labor’s policy. Join those dots and you have an outline of a regional approach, which might well include joint Indonesian/Australian policing of human trafficking between Java and Christmas Island, in return for greatly increased, UNHCR-processed, orderly resettlement of refugees from Indonesia to Australia. Boat turnbacks would then become joint rescue and repatriation operations.

Pat Wright | 07 August 2015  

I regret that this is fantasy. The world is not like this. Indon talks a good regional solution but does absolutely nothing. A regional solution that does nothing is useless. People travel by boat to get to Oz not to get protection. Marty N is part of the problem and is unreliable

Jim Molan | 07 August 2015  

I wrote to all MPs a couple years ago suggesting refugees should be processed promptly and within 3 months. (I don't remember getting any response). Surely the legitimate ones can be identified in that time, That way they don't need work and residency rights for that short time. Those not proved legitimate might then need to be returned, in the national interest. But, in those 3 months, they all need decent and proper human respect and keeping. The lack of this is surely what has caused all the unrest in such camps (prisons).

Peter Andrews | 07 August 2015  

Thanks for one of the best reasoned and most hopeful thing I've read recently on the issue of asylum seekers

Ann Troup | 07 August 2015  

Last time we used Indonesia we left Vietnamese refugees to rot for 16 years and then when some survivors left Pilau Bidong w jailed them in Port Hedland before illegally deporting them to China. This is our idea of regional and must not be contemplated again. We simply have to accept without all this whining that people are allowed to come by sea to seek asylum here, they cannot claim asylum here from any other place and the only reason for processing claims overseas is so we can pick the richest and then charge them big bucks.

Marilyn | 07 August 2015  

A very helpful article and proposal. Thank you

David Holdcroft | 07 August 2015  

I have to agree, Jim, that “the world is not like this” (yet), and that Indon “does absolutely nothing”, but maybe it could be like this and Indon does nothing because Australia has never provided them with an incentive to do something about the shared problem. At least the Labor plan addresses several aspects of the problem, in addition to boat turnbacks.

Pat Wright | 07 August 2015  

One has to be aware that there are countries that agree to take refugees but they enter that country as a lowest caste slave strata of workers. This is even true in the US where Hispanics are treated in such a way. We have some responsibility to see this for what it is and ask Malaysia and Indonesia what status refugees can aspire to in their countries.

Graham Warren | 08 August 2015  

Mr Molan, the callous remark that people ‘travel by boat to get to Oz, not to get protection’ could only come from someone who has never met a refugee. That being so, let me tell you the story of one refugee, a Tamil and good friend of mine. I could tell you many stories, I regularly meet with refugees from all parts, but I will tell you one that has particularly touched me. After her husband had ‘disappeared’ during the height of the conflict in Sri Lanka, my friend fled with her three young daughters, the eldest just eleven, and sought sanctuary in a refugee camp in Malaysia. There she registered with the UNHCR and waited patiently for three years in the hope of being resettled somewhere, anywhere, although, she told me, not necessarily Australia. After three years, her eldest daughter, now at the age of puberty, had become the focus of attention of several men in the camp so, fearful for her daughters’ safety, she fled once again, this time to Indonesia where she eventually boarded a boat which took her to the Cocos Islands, and thence to Australia where she and her girls spent a period of time in a maximum security prison euphemistically called a detention centre. As she arrived before we, through our government, decided to throw her and her like to their own fates, she now enjoys permanent residency and can look forward to a decent future for her girls at least, if not for herself tormented as she is for feeling that she abandoned her husband. (He’s dead, no question, she just cannot accept it.) And should you be cynically wondering where such a mother got the wherewithal to pay a people smuggler, I suggest you ask Mrs Molan to explain it to you. Although, as a military man, perhaps you know something of the wars in Europe last century and how the women of that place and time survived; but perhaps not, perhaps your interest in conflict is limited to tactics, the machines of war, picking over battles won and battles lost. Such a mindset cannot grasp what drives the behaviour of little people caught up in, and bewildered by, brutal events beyond their comprehension or control. To suggest that a person such as my friend, and I know many more just like her, is an economic opportunist who got on a boat simply ‘to get to Oz’, is ignorant. To suggest that such a person has not come here seeking protection is a vile falsehood.

Paul | 08 August 2015  

Just because you are doing a Master's doesn't give you the permission to get out of the political arena. Lobby both parties, you are good at it. You could be our voice in the Nation.

Mahdi | 09 August 2015  

Thank you Paul. Do keep telling your stories. Perhaps they will convince where "facts and figures" fail.

Janet | 09 August 2015  

We keep referring to a "refugee" problem when the real problem originates with within the countries they come from. Why are we too afraid the address the real issue and deal with those with whom the real fault lies?

Eric | 09 August 2015  

If Australia has the right to turn back boats, of course very few asylum seekers will arrive. We are the country with space and wealth. We should take more. How can Asylum seekers access their country of choice if it is Australia?...only be making their way through Asia and so disqualifying themselves to come here... I think Australia is builing a selfish position, as far as I can understand. If this framework is adopted, Australia would again be avoiding our responsibilities, and also cutting ourselves off from life giving infusions of valuable new citizens.

ERWinderlich | 10 August 2015  


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