The current international refugee situation is one of the most challenging the world has ever seen. Statistics recently released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) show that the number of people forcibly displaced worldwide has now topped 50 million, the highest level since World War II. Across the world, millions of displaced people remain without the protection and support they need, often living under abysmal conditions for years on end with little hope of their situation being resolved.
In Asia and the Middle East, 29 of the 43 countries have not signed the Refugee Convention and most of them treat refugees and asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants”. Lacking legal status, permission to work and access to basic services, many people seeking protection are consigned to deep poverty on the margins of society and live in constant fear of arrest and detention. Faced with conditions like these, it is hardly surprising that some refugees and asylum seekers feel compelled to seek protection further afield – including through risky boat journeys.
Unfortunately, neither major political party in Australia seems seriously interested in effective action to improve refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific region, instead focusing on increasingly harsh and punitive measures to deter people from travelling to Australia by boat. However, while it may be possible to slow the flow of asylum seeker boats through deterrence in the short-term, the current challenges will continue to manifest themselves in new forms unless the underlying problem is addressed. Australia and its neighbours will not develop worthwhile and effective responses to displacement in this region if governments continue to largely ignore the difficulties many refugees face in getting access to protection.
There is an urgent need for greater regional action to improve the protection of refugees and asylum seekers in the Asia-Pacific region. This process should begin with addressing the most basic needs of people fleeing persecution and gradually move towards the development of a coordinated and consistent regional system of refugee protection. It is possible to identify 10 key steps required to improve the protection of refugees in the region.
1. Removing barriers to the refugee determination process
Many Asian nations do not have a domestic refugee status determination process and rely on UNHCR to step in and provide one. Despite the fact that it is not actually UNHCR’s job to determine refugee status, the agency intervenes in 66 countries where the host government will not or does not have the capacity to provide a suitable process. Even where a domestic or UNHCR process exists, many asylum seekers cannot access it or they have their access delayed. In 2013, newly arrived asylum seekers in Malaysia were being given appointments for the initial asylum interview in late 2015 – expected to wait for more than two years, without legal status and no way of supporting themselves, before their asylum process even begins. This has got to change.
2. Increasing support for NGOs
Governments in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh do very little – in some cases, nothing at all – to assist refugees. The assistance from UNHCR is often paltry. Most refugees have to survive on their own wits but the best help they get is often the help from non-government organisations (NGOs). If we as concerned citizens want greater safety for refugees, if we want to see constructive alternatives to dangerous boat journeys to Australia, we have to work towards ensuring that NGOs have more resources to do their vital work in emergency assistance, health care, education and legal representation – and that they are able to do this work unhindered.
3. Providing a secure legal status to people seeking protection
It is untenable that many asylum seekers going through UNHCR processes, and refugees already recognised by UNHCR, are treated in many countries as “illegal immigrants”. We should encourage host governments to give legal permission to refugees to remain where they are while their refugee status is determined and a durable solution is found.
4. Developing alternatives to immigration detention
Freedom from arrest and detention is critical to building the sense of safety and security for refugees living in an unfamiliar country. We must work towards policies which enable refugees and asylum seekers to avoid immigration detention and which can facilitate the rapid release of those who end up being detained. There are already the beginnings of some policies to address this need in different parts of Asia but there is still more work to be done.
5. Granting official permission to work
Overwhelmingly, Asia’s refugees live in cities and towns, not in camps, and have no choice but to work (often illegally) in order to survive. In cities such as Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, refugees are working. They are filling gaps in the labour market. They are contributing to the economies of their host countries. They are a burden to nobody. And yet they are doing all of this outside of the law, leaving them vulnerable to arrest at any time, to harassment and to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Granting refugees official permission to work would greatly reduce this risk of exploitation as well as assisting refugees to maintain a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
6. Providing access to basic government services
In many countries, people seeking protection lack access to critical services such as education and health care. Providing this access would reduce pressure on UNHCR and NGOs, which often step in to provide basic services when host governments are not prepared to do so. Middle-income countries such as Malaysia and Thailand could do this relatively easily but poorer nations such as Indonesia and Bangladesh will need some international financial assistance.
7. Providing access to durable solutions
As cooperation builds, host States, UNHCR and resettlement States should work together to assist refugees to find durable solutions for refugees, whether that be returning home voluntarily if it is safe to do so, remaining permanently in their host country or being resettled in another country. As countries in the region have differing levels of capacity to provide long-term solutions to refugees, less should be expected of countries with limited economic opportunities such as Indonesia than of middle-income countries like Malaysia and Thailand or high-income countries such as Australia.
8. Developing national asylum legislation
We need to encourage nations in Asia to move beyond relying on UNHCR to provide their refugee determination system for them. This may sound like pie in the sky but there has been slow and steady growth in the number of Asian countries taking on this responsibility. The Philippines has functioning national refugee legislation, which could provide a model for other nations in the ASEAN region. The Republic of Korea brought its new refugee law into effect in July 2013. In Taiwan, there is active debate about developing national refugee legislation. National refugee determination systems are not only theoretically possible in Asia; there are already examples working right now to protect refugees.
9. Promoting ratification of the Refugee Convention
With domestic legislation in place, countries could be encouraged to sign the Refugee Convention. This would be seen as a far less daunting step if taken after legislation and other basic protections are in place. By then, it would largely be an affirmation of what already exists.
10. Harmonising asylum processes across the region
As each nation develops its domestic asylum system, work could begin on building greater consistency in processes across the region. The goal would be to work towards a situation where an asylum seeker would not be significantly advantaged or disadvantaged by seeking asylum within a particular country in the region.
The process of building a regionally consistent system of refugee protection will take many years, even after we get to a point where some political leaders in the region are seriously interested in providing better protection for refugees. In the meantime, while we dream of how things can be different, Australians have to deal with the harsh realities of what is happening now in our country.
We Australians should be worried that our government has cut its Refugee and Humanitarian Program by 6,250 permanent places each year, at a time when more resettlement places are desperately needed.
We should be worried that the Australian Government is doing everything it can to push boats of asylum seekers back to Indonesia against the wishes of the Indonesian Government and with no apparent strategy to ensure that those forcibly returned are safe.
We should be worried that people who have made it to Australia to seek protection from persecution are being sent to Papua New Guinea and Nauru – a former colony and a former trust territory of Australia – to experience indefinite detention under appalling conditions with no clear plan for their long-term protection once they are found to be refugees.
We should be worried that Australia is cooperating so closely with the government of Sri Lanka to stop people escaping what has been and continues to be a major source country for refugees, a country led by an administration with a very poor human rights record.
We should be worried for the many asylum seekers who are denied the right to work and forced to live in deep uncertainty on an allowance lower than we would consider appropriate for any Australian-born person.
We should be worried that boat arrivals seeking asylum in Australia are now having to do so without funded legal advice and probably soon without access to independent review through the Refugee Review Tribunal.
We should be worried that boat arrivals found to be refugees will be denied permanent protection and denied the opportunity to reunite with separated family members.
And we should be particularly worried about the situation of more than 40 refugees who, it would seem, are to remain permanently in detention in Melbourne and Sydney because of adverse security assessments, which they cannot contest.
It is hard to be optimistic in the current circumstances, particularly for those of us who regularly meet those affected by these harsh policies. But we must continue to offer all the support we can to those who are suffering and work as tirelessly as we can, not only to oppose things we are convinced are harmful, but to put forward constructive and workable alternatives. Our goal of improving refugee protection across Asia-Pacific may currently be aspirational but, with the right political leadership, much could be achieved.
Paul Power is the CEO of the Refugee Council of Australia.