Australia is one of the most generous countries when it comes to resettling refugees, but push factors that result in asylum seeker movements toward our region highlight an incongruous chasm between Australia’s approaches toward refugees being resettled compared to asylum seekers. A re-imagined immigration policy must deliver broader options, beyond offshore processing.

However, the social and economic development challenges felt in the Asia-Pacific cannot be ignored in any quest to improve Australia’s role in regional refugee policy. Improved regional protections for asylum seekers will only be achieved in conjunction with poverty alleviation and capacity building, which necessitates a strong commitment to generous levels of foreign aid and development assistance.

Refugee definitions and the Australian context

The Australian government’s response to asylum seekers is often considered against normative global approaches. However, there is a tendency for comparisons between Australia and elsewhere to contain distortions and to conflate important points; this often shifts debate away from a more careful analysis of the unique features of Australia’s refugee and asylum seeker context.

Issues pertaining to refugees and asylum seekers have important differences, which changeable and sometimes erroneous terminology employed by successive Australian governments and some refugee advocates, may not distinguish. For instance, important distinctions must be made between countries receiving asylum applications, asylum seekers being recognised as refugees, refugees being hosted, and refugees being resettled. Australia has always focussed its effort on resettlement, whereas the majority of countries receiving asylum seekers and refugees focus primarily on the other processes.

The global context

Worldwide, there were over two million asylum applications made in 2012. When Australia takes 500 refugees from Syria, while Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan offer protection to more than 2.3 million refugees from the crisis, criticism of Australia’s commitment to refugee protection seems well placed.

Similarly, when contrasted with the millions of refugees that reside in countries such as Pakistan, or throughout Africa, Australia’s annual refugee intake of 12,000 per year seems meagre by any standards. Certainly, these comparisons highlight the unequal burden of asylum-seeker processing and refugee protection that mostly falls to developing economies. But such comparisons fail to highlight a vital difference: Australia’s refugee program (and until recently, Australia’s onshore asylum-seeker processing) has been focussed almost entirely on refugee resettlement.

Resettlement versus hosting

Resettlement offers access to citizenship and, consequently, full access to the rights that every Australian is entitled to. It provides permanent settlement, which is more substantial than permanent protection. Australia is ranked third-highest in the world for the number of refugees it resettles. USA and Canada rank first and second.

The majority of refugees worldwide are not resettled; instead they are most often hosted. Hosting can constitute a range of protections and other measures being available to refugees, depending on the country. For example, whilst Pakistan hosted 1,638,456 refugees in 2012, between 2003 and 2012 it did not resettle any. In 2012 Germany hosted more than 500,000 refugees and between 2003-2012 it resettled 2908.

In contrast, Australia hosted 30,083 refugees in 2012; an unusually large number in this category for Australia, due to increased asylum seeker arrivals that were not resettled. But in comparison to these other countries, between 2003 and 2012 Australia resettled 108,308 refugees.

More than 10 million refugees subsist with access to only basic amenity, whilst often continuing to live in volatile and even hostile environments. Protracted refugee situations now average 17 years, with less than 1 per cent of refugees being granted resettlement. It is the number of refugees living in protracted situations that are often compared to the numbers of refugees or asylum seekers coming to Australia. This comparison is problematic.

Those who come to Australia through the Humanitarian Refugee program are among those lucky few that gain access to opportunities incomparable to other refugee contexts. In other words, whilst Australia has a relatively small refugee intake, resettlement provides a much higher level of support.

However, whilst Australia has focussed its effort on resettlement of smaller numbers, the majority of countries focus primarily on other refugee and asylum seeker protection processes, and in doing so provide support to millions of people in need for extended periods. All such efforts are required, however in a global context it is fair to suggest that Australia has not yet developed a mature approach to anything other than permanent resettlement through offshore processing; a process in which Australia retains strong control over who comes and who doesn’t.

The Australian response

Australia has struggled to come to terms with the chaotic, unplanned, and so-called ‘irregular’ maritime arrivals that attempt to seek asylum in Australia. Yet it appears that other countries accept such arrivals far more readily; and in doing so, accept the reality that refugee movements are never straightforward.

Australia’s more recent approaches to asylum seekers, including onshore and offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas and other mechanisms providing asylum seekers with non-permanent status, have been criticised strongly by refugee advocates. Yet it can often be unclear what a better approach to onshore refugee protection would look like if it were to differ from permanent resettlement.

There is no doubt that the absolute majority of refugees worldwide live in protracted uncertainty and in some ways this demonstrates that temporary protection is the global norm. Millions of asylum seekers have little access to timely refugee determination processes; a potential precursor to better protections and resettlement. Asylum seekers travelling through various countries toward Australia are often seeking access to such measures.

These journeys signify the changing state of push factors that asylum seekers often endure. Whilst firstly escaping a well-founded fear of persecution, subsequent journeys may be better described as escaping a well-founded fear of protracted uncertainty, within which a lack of access to the type of rights enshrined in the Refugee Convention exists.

Many actors in this debate are now pressing for better cooperation between our neighbouring nations to improve protections in the countries asylum seekers travel through. In Australia’s context, this translates to advocating for more timely refugee processing and improved protections in the Asia-Pacific.

However, for these proposals to have any chance of success, they must ensure refugee issues take into account the context of regional poverty and development. To have a strong regional system of refugee protection in the Asia-Pacific requires a capacity that many countries would currently struggle to demonstrate. Manus Island is unfortunately a perfect example.

The events that have recently occurred in Manus Island on Australia’s watch bear all the hallmarks of the chaos, desperateness, and danger that characterise refugee camps elsewhere in the world. And, it should come as no surprise that such events occur when taking into account the domestic challenges that are entrenched in places such as PNG. Many countries in our region are already struggling with weak governance, high levels of violence and entrenched poverty. Even if countries are signatories to the Refugee Convention, such as East Timor or Cambodia, the suggestion they have the capacity to provide the type of permanent protections advocates are calling for, such as access to employment, education and health, is plainly ill founded.

This is the dilemma. The Australian standard that government and advocates seem to rely upon, i.e. the refugee resettlement program, provides a level of support that is unrealistic to expect from many neighbouring countries. In addition, the difference between the improved permanent protections in comparison to resettlement can be difficult to ascertain.

If better responses are to be delivered to asylum seekers either onshore or in our region, and the existing resettlement program is to remain, how will this occur?

The way forward

If Australia is to build upon its resettlement legacy and play its part in other forms of refugee protection it urgently needs to develop policies that stand up to scrutiny according to values and standards considered acceptable in Australia.

If Australian governments expect regional cooperation to abide by higher standards than recently demonstrated then it must substantially boost efforts both in the form of foreign aid, diplomacy and development assistance. It will not be enough to just invest in resources in the region provided through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Without a long-term regional approach that aims to lift both refugee protection standards and the living standards of neighbouring citizens, asylum seekers will continue to pursue more than protracted uncertainty and it is their right to do so.


Tim Watson has worked in education and community development for over a decade and in the area of refugee resettlement in Australia since 2006. In 2011 he was commissioned by UNHCR to write a research paper on the role of public services, employment and the private sector in refugee resettlement.