View from The Hill

Resettlement is the test for Malcolm Turnbull on refugees

Malcolm Turnbull addresses a high-level refugee meeting at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Jason Szenes/EPA

Malcolm Turnbull’s various New York comments about border control and refugee policies have been heavy on self-congratulation of Australia.

The biggest missing element has been any announcement of a solution to getting refugees off Nauru and Manus Island. Until the future of these people is satisfactorily resolved, the government’s policy has a major area of failure.

Behind the scenes there seem to be hints that some progress might be being made. Let’s hope these are not false signals.

Turnbull’s “announcables” in New York were minimal. The promise of A$130 million over three years for “peace-building and assistance to refugees, forcibly displaced communities and host countries” was welcome.

But the other major part of his announcement – that “Australia’s planned increase to almost 19,000 places [18,750 to be precise] from mid-2018 will be maintained at this level” – was a bit of a con.

There had been no suggestion that the proposed increase – which came under Tony Abbott and followed an earlier cut by the Coalition – would not be ongoing.

Turnbull also said Australia would also participate in the US-led program to resettle Central American refugees currently in Costa Rica. These people would be within the program – not in addition. The Prime Minister’s Office said this was not part of any resettlement deal involving the Nauru-Manus refugees.

One feature of Turnbull’s comments this week is how much his and Abbott’s positions are in sync, something that would not have been so obvious a year ago when, soon after losing his post, Abbott lectured Europe about the need for tough border control.

Abbott – predictably – was speaking on border issues just before Turnbull’s contributions. The former prime minister said in a Saturday speech in Prague that people intercepted in the Mediterranean had to be returned to their starting point.

Turnbull told US President Barack Obama’s leaders’ summit on refugees that the issue required the “full spectrum” of responses.

First, “we need to do more to address the underlying causes of displacement – conflict, instability, and other vulnerabilities – including providing more assistance, and opportunity, as close to home as possible”.

“Second, we must have strong border protection policies that put the people smugglers out of business. We are all too familiar with the tragedy of lost lives at sea and on land caused by those so immoral that they are willing to traffic and exploit human desperation.

"Strong borders are not just about security. They are crucial to ensuring social harmony and public support for migration domestically, as we have heard from one speaker after another today.

"Australia is a prime example. Securing our borders has increased public confidence and enabled Australia to have one of the world’s most generous humanitarian systems.”

Obviously European countries are struggling with trying to get borders under control and with the consequences of porous borders.

The government stresses that Australia is being listened to. But the constant presentation of Australia as an example holds only to a very limited extent – because of the ease of closing Australia’s natural sea border and the relatively small numbers of asylum seekers that had been arriving.

The very heavy emphasis on the role of the people smugglers also tends to play down the extent of the huge push factors that have driven many refugees fleeing to Europe.

Obama this week told the UnitedUN in his last address to the General Assembly: “In the eyes of innocent men and women and children who, through no fault of their own, have had to flee everything that they know, everything that they love, we have to have the empathy to see ourselves.

"We have to imagine what it would be like for our family, for our children, if the unspeakable happened to us. And we should all understand that, ultimately, our world will be more secure if we are prepared to help those in need and the nations who are carrying the largest burden with respect to accommodating these refugees.

"There are a lot of nations right now that are doing the right thing. But many nations – particularly those blessed with wealth and the benefits of geography – that can do more to offer a hand, even if they also insist that refugees who come to our countries have to do more to adapt to the customs and conventions of the communities that are now providing them a home.”

One feature of Australian political leaders is that they seem to lack the empathy to imagine themselves in the shoes of refugees.

Postscript: An Essential poll has found 49% would support a ban on Muslim immigration to Australia; 40% would oppose, Essential’s Peter Lewis writes.

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