Dealing with refugee flows requires sophisticated policies that reflect both domestic and international realities. These realities include Australia’s status as a sovereign nation that wishes to protect its borders, but also as a country operating in a highly globalised world.
That world is experiencing situations of protracted armed conflict and large numbers of refugees. The key challenge for the returned Turnbull government is to formulate policies that reflect this complexity and present Australia as a good global citizen willing to take its fair share of refugees.
These policies therefore must be ones that go beyond a focus on “stopping the boats” and lead to sustainable solutions. To a large extent, this will rest on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s ability to persuade reluctant factions within his party of the need to re-calibrate certain aspects of Coalition policy.
The government’s first priority should be to improve conditions in offshore detention facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
The government has argued the Australian public widely supports its “tough” border policies, but there is evidence of growing disquiet about aspects of offshore detention. These include the detention of children, the mental health of detainees and inadequate standards of medical care. The government will therefore need to put in place measures to ensure greater oversight over operations in its offshore detention centres.
Specifically, the government must deal with two urgent policy matters relating to offshore detention as a priority.
First, it must formulate a plan to deal with the repercussions of the PNG Supreme Court’s decision in April this year. The court found detention of refugees and asylum seekers in the Australian-funded centre on PNG was unconstitutional under the right to liberty in the PNG Constitution.
The Australia government has not yet released a proper response. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has simply argued that the PNG court decision is not binding on Australia, and that the asylum seekers and refugees in the centre are PNG’s responsibility.
However, the legal position is far more complex than that. Further litigation on this issue has begun in both PNG and Australian courts. The government must develop a policy response to this litigation to ensure its offshore centres operate within the law.
A second urgent matter will be for the government to agree on how to resettle those asylum seekers who have been recognised as refugees by authorities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru.
Previous policies that have used developing nations such as Cambodia have clearly not worked. There is also evidence that PNG and Nauru are not suitable resettlement places for refugees. As a result, these refugees are living in limbo.
Turnbull must find a workable solution. This may require him to change tack to allow those persons recognised as refugees in the offshore processing centres to be resettled in Australia.
The reality is there is simply no political will in our region to take refugees who are seen as Australia’s responsibility. This will be a test of Turnbull’s ability to persuade his party of the moral and political need for a change in policy.
Long-term, creative solutions
In addition to these urgent policy matters, the government needs to rethink its approach to resettlement.
Official Liberal Party policy states the government will maintain the resettlement quota at 13,750 places per year for the next two financial years, increasing to 18,750 places in 2018-19. While this is a positive move, the government needs to find more creative ways of providing avenues to refugees to come to Australia, particularly given the great international need for resettlement.
One example of a creative policy solution is the Canadian model of private sponsorship. This allows organisations like church groups to sponsor refugees. Under this program, the relevant group agrees to fund a refugee’s resettlement costs for one year. This also has the advantage of providing a personal contact for the resettled refugee, which in turn assists with community integration.
Australia’s Department of Immigration conducted a similar pilot in 2012. Its 2015 report on the pilot suggested such a program:
… could provide an additional resettlement pathway.
Given the support for refugees expressed by community groups, particularly churches, the government should pursue this policy option in the next year. It also has the advantage of perhaps being politically acceptable to all factions within the Coalition – even those that are against any increase in the official resettlement program.
More broadly, the government must take a longer-term, global view of asylum policy that results in durable solutions for refugees. This includes developing a greater understanding of the position of countries in our region, as well as a more realistic awareness of Australia’s responsibilities as a wealthy, industrialised nation in a globalised world.