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Houston report on asylum seekers: did the panel listen to the experts?

Angus Houston’s expert panel on asylum seekers released its final report yesterday. Charged by the prime minister with breaking the political deadlock on asylum seeker policy, the panel has handed down…

The Conversation expert panel and the Houston panel: same terms of reference, different recommendations. AAP/Alan Porritt

Angus Houston’s expert panel on asylum seekers released its final report yesterday. Charged by the prime minister with breaking the political deadlock on asylum seeker policy, the panel has handed down 22 recommendations for preventing deaths at sea.

Two weeks ago, The Conversation’s asylum seeker expert panel released its own recommendations, tailored to the Houston’s terms of reference and based on the wealth of research evidence on asylum seeker issues.

So how did our experts differ from the government’s? Here’s a comparison between the two.


One: how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat

The Houston panel: The application of a “no advantage” principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements.

The Conversation panel: We should enhance regularised travel for asylum seekers by redressing visa processes which unnecessarily restrict travel access for main asylum groups including Iraqis, Afghans, Iranians and Sri Lankans.


The Houston panel: The panel recommends that a capacity be established in Nauru as soon as practical to process the claims of IMAs [Irregular Maritime Arrivals] transferred from Australia in ways consistent with Australian and Nauruan responsibilities under international law.

The panel recommends that a capacity be established in PNG as soon as possible to process the claims of IMAs transferred from Australia in ways consistent with the responsibilities of Australia and PNG under international law.

The Conversation panel: We should enhance onshore procedures for efficient and effective processing of asylum claims.

As an alternative to detention, we should implement procedures that require regular reporting by onshore applicants after necessary health and security checks have been completed.


Two: source, transit and destination country aspects of irregular migration

The Houston panel: The panel recommends a more effective whole-of-government strategy be developed for engaging with source countries for asylum seekers to Australia, with a focus on a significant increase in resettlement places provided by Australia to the Middle East and Asia regions.

The Conversation panel: As part of coalition forces in current key countries of origin such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Australia should recognise and honour our moral obligations in responding to irregular flows generated by conflict in the region.

Recognising the importance of regional solutions, Australia should prioritise asylum seekers in the Asia Pacific.


Three: relevant international obligations

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that bilateral cooperation on asylum seeker issues with Indonesia be advanced as a matter of urgency.

The panel recommends that Australia continue to develop its vitally important cooperation with Malaysia on asylum issues, including the management of a substantial number of refugees to be taken annually from Malaysia.

The Conversation panel: All asylum and border control processes must be consistent with Australia’s international obligations. These obligations should be promoted as a matter of pride and prominence in all measures.

Recognising the likely increase in prosperity and growth throughout this region, Australia as a human rights leader should encourage other nations in the region to become parties to the Refugee Convention and Protocol and enhance their capacity to provide protection.


Four: short, medium and long term approaches to assist in the development of an effective and sustainable approach to asylum seekers

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that, in the context of a review of the efficacy of the recommendations put forward in this report, the linkage between the onshore and offshore components of the humanitarian program be reviewed within two years.

The Conversation panel: Australia should cease its practice of reducing the number of offshore special humanitarian places made available through its refugee and humanitarian resettlement program each year by the number of onshore protection visas granted that year.


The Houston panel: The humanitarian program be immediately increased to 20,000 places per annum.

Of the 20,000 places recommended for the humanitarian program, a minimum of 12,000 places should be allocated for the refugee component which would double the current allocation.

Subject to prevailing economic circumstances, the impact of the program increase (recommended above) and progress in achieving more effective regional cooperation arrangements, consideration be given to increasing the number of places in the humanitarian program to around 27,000 within five years.

The panel recommends that the current backlog in the SHP (Special Humanitarian Program) be addressed as a means of reducing the demand for family reunion through irregular and dangerous maritime voyages to Australia, and that this be achieved through removing family reunion concessions for proposers who arrive through irregular maritime voyages – with these proposers to instead seek reunion through the family stream of the migration program

The Conversation panel: Australia should at minimum double its annual refugee and humanitarian resettlement program and seriously consider a larger intake.


The Houston panel: The panel recommends that the 2011 Arrangement between the Government of Australia and the Government of Malaysia on Transfer and Resettlement (Malaysia agreement) be built on further, rather than being discarded or neglected, and that this be achieved through high-level bilateral engagement focused on strengthening safeguards and accountability as a positive basis for the Australian parliament’s reconsideration of new legislation that would be necessary.

The Conversation panel: Australia should negotiate with regional governments for the establishment of asylum claim processing centres in countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan and Malaysia so that asylum seekers do not need to travel further afield in order to access protection.


The Houston panel: The panel recommends that in support of the further development of a regional cooperation framework on protection and asylum systems, the Australian government expand its relevant capacity-building initiatives in the region and significantly increase the allocation of resources for this purpose.

The Conversation panel: Australia should work with regional governments to find regional solutions to refugee protection.


The Houston panel: The panel recommends that disruption strategies be continued as part of any comprehensive approach to the challenges posed by people smuggling and that relevant Australian agencies be resourced with appropriate funding on a continuing basis for this purpose.

The panel notes that the conditions necessary for effective, lawful and safe turnback of irregular vessels carrying asylum seekers to Australia are not currently met, but that this situation could change in the future, in particular if appropriate regional and bilateral arrangements are in place.

The Conversation panel: Countries that agree to provide refugee protection – including Australia – should provide air transport from origin and transit countries to destination countries for all persons assessed as being in need of protection. Providing an opportunity for legal and safe passage to Australia could help reduce unauthorised entries.


Five: the legislative requirements for implementation

The Houston panel: The panel recommends that legislation to support the transfer of people to regional processing arrangements be introduced into the Australian Parliament as a matter of urgency. This legislation should require that any future designation of a country as an appropriate place for processing be achieved through a further legislative instrument that would provide the opportunity for the Australian Parliament to allow or disallow the instrument.

The panel recommends that the Migration Act 1958 be amended so that arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular maritime means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place.

The Conversation panel: It is already within the power of the executive government to ensure that all Australia’s international obligations towards asylum seekers are honoured. However, under existing domestic law, it is also within the power of the government to act contrary to Australia’s international obligations in many respects if it chooses to do so. Therefore, legislation should be passed which expressly incorporates the Refugee Convention and Refugee Protocol and all human rights treaties to which Australia is a party into Australia’s domestic law without change.


This is not a summary of the full Houston report, which can be read here.

Read The Conversation expert panel’s full statement here.