Solving refugee issues by taking a strategic rather than an emotional approach

Our national dilemma with asylum-seeking and illegal immigration strategically, and our public debate domestically, are much affected by factors which Australia shares with very few countries. This is why our public debate on refugee policy tends to dwell emotionally on the symptoms of the dilemma rather than its actual strategic, legal and moral causes.

Our international law responsibilities (such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol) mean we cannot just make all unauthorised entry to Australia illegal.

But conversely, Australian law must be able to differentiate between genuine asylum seekers arriving in an unauthorised manner by boat or jetliner, which is not in itself necessarily illegal, and anyone else who arrives by such means (including bogus asylum seekers and unauthorised immigrants of all varieties). 

Australia is a much nicer place to live than most other countries, particularly in our near and wider region, and remains one of the four first-world countries with a mass immigration program.

We also have a long and impressive history of permanently resettling immigrants and refugees in large per capita and absolute numbers.

Both aspects are underwritten by a wide and longstanding national consensus socially. 

They are also based on an internationally rare political and legal culture that believes Australian nationality and citizenship are not synonymous with any one particular race, ethnicity or religion but are instead based on shared values and loyalties. 

But there are also now large numbers of overseas-born Australians, and their descendants, who naturally seek to lobby our government to admit their kith and kin as immigrants or refugees — or who otherwise try to get them into Australia by any means.

 A growing risk here is that these imperatives do not always pay due regard to the overall national interest — or indeed due adherence to Australian law and the long-term democratic sensitivities and balances of our political system. 

All these “pull factors” markedly affect the culture, politics and emotion of our public debate, often detrimentally.

This especially concerns the mistaken or wilfully evasive assumption that offering asylum must always involve granting permanent residence and then citizenship. 

This is not and never has been the intention of the Convention.

In fact it undermines the Convention’s international acceptance by deterring most countries from ever becoming signatories.

It also tends to encourage scepticism domestically about various groups of asylum claimants. 

This is why our previous system of Temporary Protection Visas, while it had some negative (and preventable) outcomes due to flawed implementation, was very much in accord with the principles, intentions and moral integrity of the Convention.  

But the most important factor complicating Australia’s position is the real “push” one that most countries, especially in our near and wider regions, have not acceded to the Convention.

The incidence of war or civil strife is not a “push factor” per se but a symptom of the Convention not being truly universal, especially over much of the world where the wars that ceaselessly cause refugees occur

As well as encouraging domestic disharmony about immigration as a whole — and asylum policy in particular — by leading to actual or perceived rorting of entry processes, the asylum-must-be-permanent fallacy also undermines the overall strategic intention of the Convention internationally. 

A core intention of the Convention, as with Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, is to encourage permanent solutions to conflicts on a regional basis.

Neighbouring countries are meant to solve the causes of refugee crises in the first place so refugees can quickly, safely and easily return to their homes to rebuild broken societies and polities.

Tragically, the rejection of the Convention by so many countries has meant constant wars, much never-ending destruction of civil society in afflicted countries more widely, the misery of permanent refugee camps across much of the world, and the endemic strategic instability, misery and moral hypocrisy of near-permanent, extra-regional, refugee flows

In terms of Australia’s strategic and moral setting, of the 35 or so countries between the Aegean and Arafura Seas (in the Middle East, West Asia, South Asia and South-East Asia) there are only seven signatories to the Convention (and Turkey rejected its extension outside Europe in the 1967 Protocol).

With the partial exception of Israel, the other five remaining (Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, East Timor and Cambodia) are effectively pseudo-signatories who have records of causing refugee flows rather than providing sanctuary. 

Few other countries in the Asia-Pacific are signatories.

Much fewer (New Zealand and to an extent PNG) have records of taking their responsibilities seriously in action. 

Apparently nominal signatories in our wider region include Japan, South Korea, Philippines, China, Fiji, Solomon Islands, Samoa and Tuvalu.

China, in particular, is better known as a source of refugees rather than a sanctuary.

The same could be said about Fiji and Solomon Islands at times. All four South Pacific signatories have rarely been called upon to offer asylum and this is likely to continue. 

Even more to the point, Australia’s geographic setting, and to varying extents our first-world economic and socio-political status, tend to place us in the regional frontline for permanent asylum claims from West Asia, South Asia and the Middle East in particular. 

Australian public debate on refugee policy largely ignores this geo-strategic setting.

Consequently it often only involves either beating or puffing ourselves up morally and emotionally over our national willingness or not to accept refugees (either some or all).

Alternatively, public debate descends into the advocacy of simplistic and draconian pseudo-solutions.

Such as trying to deter or punish every refugee or unauthorised immigrant who might come here or alternatively accepting everyone and anyone on an unlimited basis. 

Both types of behaviour are arguing about symptoms rather than addressing the causes and finding solutions.

Moreover, our refugee policy and our associated expectations of other countries are but two of many aspects in our overall strategic relationship with our regional neighbours. 

Refugee matters must not be allowed to become a defining or persistent problem in such complex strategic relationships.

We must also avoid the potential for regional neighbours to pressure us strategically through facilitating extra-regional refugee flows into Australia or not, or in threatening to do so. 

Over the medium to long term there will be no effective solution, and increasing strategic risks, for Australia until more countries sign the Convention. Particularly in our near and wider region.

India, Singapore and Indonesia, for example, would be a good start both morally and strategically.

No opportunity should be lost in pointing out this apparent hypocrisy and strategic and moral buck-passing to any Indian, Singaporean or Indonesian you meet.

Start next on any Australian or diplomatic apologists advancing red herrings about it somehow being all too hard for these countries.

Or those claiming that declared universal responsibilities in refugee matters only apply to Australia and other first-world countries in practice, despite a good take-up of the Convention in South America, the Caribbean and much of Africa and Central Asia.

The nub of our enduring problem strategically is that while current numbers of genuine refugees entering Australia appear manageable, this manageability and the potential instability of our domestic unity are inversely proportional to both future numbers, any lessening time period involved, and to any degree of foreign strategic pressure on this and wider grounds. 

We also need a consistent and strategically viable policy on refugees rather than one that depends almost entirely on the current low numbers for its legitimacy, effectiveness, popular support, international acceptability or purported long-term viability. 

Hard as it may be politically, socially and morally, tough issues and options need to be addressed.

Unless or until the Refugee Convention becomes truly universal legally, morally and in the effect intended — and countries in every region finally look after their own as the Convention intends — it is foreseeable (if not yet likely) that one day Australia might have to threaten to or withdraw from the Convention until it becomes truly universal and effective. 

We need to think coolly about such dilemmas and potential solutions now.

Not when a crisis hits, public emotions run high either way and party-political policy auctions risk being swayed accordingly. 

There are serious problems with the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol which extended its potential application geographically to the whole world but without much take-up in our region.

The current situation regarding the Convention is one where the moral buck-passing involved and the strategic instability it causes internationally seem to be worsening.

Unless we think this through as a long-term strategic as well as a day-to-day political and moral problem, the necessary public consensus underlying our mass immigration and refugee policies will weaken seriously and perhaps fatally.

 Perhaps even to the extent that it results in more pervasive and serious breakdowns in our national unity, leading in turn to major political dissension, disintegrating social cohesion and other national security risks.

01 June 2010
The Canberra Times