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The ins and outs of a regional solution for refugees

  • 06 August 2015

A 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