Government and governance, International relations | Australia, The World

5 December 2018

By choosing not to sign up to the global agreement, Australia has left itself alone and adrift on regional migration policy, Marianne Dickie writes.

The visa sponsor is in his late thirties. He has gone public with his story in the hope that an intervention may help his wife’s visa be processed faster. The current wait time from the Home Affairs website is between 17-26 months.

For Australian resident Abi Sood, the desire to be with his wife is personal, his need individual. And yet it is a need that is echoed across Australia for anyone sponsoring an applicant in the country’s family stream. The cost of making an application is extraordinarily high, the processing time tediously long. The silence from the Department can seem ominous.

The dreams of applicants seem a long way from United Nations negotiations, yet they are intrinsically tied with Australia’s decision not to sign on to a non-binding compact aimed at enhancing safe, orderly and regular migration.

The Global Compact on Migration is one of two agreements drawn up by the global community to address the impacts of increased forced and irregular migration (the other one being the Global Compact on Refugees). It is the result of one year of negotiations following the New York Declaration in 2016.

This process behind the drafting of the compact was astounding. It was a process clearly focused on migrant issues, where the global community has looked to better ways to address the challenges of global displacement. In this alone we can say it has been a success.

More on this: Myanmar and a new mass migration crisis

Yet despite this enormous achievement, Australia has joined pro-nationalist countries such as the US, Hungary, Croatia, Austria, Israel, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland in publicly withdrawing from further negotiations.

Since Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s announcement that Australia does not need to sign the compact, academics, practitioners, international commentators and policy centres have responded with explanations as to why he is wrong.

Behind the announcement was the public assertion by the government that the compact would “surrender sovereign control” of our border protection policies – that joining it would blur the lines between legal and illegal immigration.

This is clearly a red herring. The final draft document rests on the principles and norms of international law instruments guiding human rights and migration. It is based on responsibility sharing and recognises that the benefits and vulnerabilities of migration are international issues beyond the capacity of a single state.

Importantly, the document recognises that drivers of migration can and do overlap. It also understands that migration undertaken as a necessity rather than a choice puts migrants at a great risk of human rights violations throughout their journey.

As a destination country, Australia’s isolationist response to the compact rejects the fundamental premise that no state can address migration alone.

This stance ignores the real benefits that participating in the compact could bring to Australia and to the region. Morrison has stated that we don’t have to join the agreement because Australia has already achieved the goals of “safe orderly migration”.

More on this: Towards better migration in the Asia-Pacific

In many ways, this is correct. When you read through the compact, there are clear areas where Australia’s policies and programs meet its goals, such as providing a means of identification to migrants as well as access to education and healthcare.

However, Australia remains one of a handful of states that considers the objective of reducing migration a legitimate means of managing orderly migration.

The countries proposing not to sign the compact are essentially objecting to what they refer to as the ‘blurring of legal and illegal immigration’. This fine line represents the edges of migration law and it is here where the vulnerable migrant is most likely to be found.

In Australia’s case, it is not only asylum seekers who are vulnerable. The holders of student visas, seasonal worker visas, working holiday visas, partner visas and even temporary skilled visas also regularly experience vulnerability. Here is where the migrant lives in danger of becoming an irregular migrant, where a substantive visa holder can become an asylum seeker.

So why does Australia’s political narrative collide with the aims of the compact?

The answer is that the compact would require Australia to engage with the region and reverse many of the current trends it has implemented. Such trends include the marked reduction in permanent migration and an increase in temporary visas; the reduction of the family program and the emphasis on high income migrants; decisions around working holiday visas that could take work away from Pacific Islanders; the huge increase in cancellations of permanent visas on character grounds; and the cancellation of citizenship for those born in Papua New Guinea.

When we look at these trends, along with decisions such as the defunding of refugee centres in Indonesia managed by the International Organization for Migration, we can see a hardening of political rhetoric to migrants across the spectrum. This rhetoric ignores the very real gains and contributions Australia could have made through continued engagement with the Global Compact.

More on this: The Brief: Seeking asylum

So, what would committing to the compact actually mean?

It would mean addressing the drivers of migration to ensure that people could migrate safely and in an orderly fashion. It would mean providing more family visas so people could be reunited quickly. Parents may actually be able to apply for a visa and be granted it in their lifetime.

It would mean opening the pathways to permanent residency for skilled and low-skilled workers such as Pacific Islanders working in regional Australia.

It would mean ensuring skills can be recognised across borders, building capacity in countries of origin, and an active commitment to address racism and xenophobia in public commentary and the media.

On the world stage, it would help demonstrate leadership and improve Australia’s standing in the-Indo Pacific.

Failure to participate in the Global Compact on Migration has left Australia bereft of authority. It has reduced our ability to act as a strong and credible voice in our region on issues such as human trafficking, people smuggling, and forced migration.

Importantly for the Morrison government, this decision has removed any pretence of engaging in regional processing of asylum seekers and revealed the true policy of externalising borders for what it is.

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