Australia out of step on refugees on world stage

Focus on border control risks making refugees a political problem

Marianne Dickie

Government and governance, Law | Australia, The World

23 June 2017

In the second part of her series on the development of a Global Compact for migration, Marianne Dickie writes that while the world looks at ways to increase safety for refugees, Australia remains focused on securing its borders.

Australians are not unique in their migration history, but they are extremely lucky and privileged in a world filled with instability and uncertainty. Unlike many states, Australia has a small population, a successful history of multiculturalism and overall a good legal and social commitment to human rights.

However, migration policies and legislation implemented since 2001 have worked not to uphold these commitments but to endanger them. Like other western nations, Australia has fallen into what the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) described to the recent meeting in New York on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular migration, as the ‘ubiquitous role of knee-jerk security initiatives’.

Australia was one of a handful of countries at the first informal thematic session that presented migration as an issue of sovereignty, stressing the need for each sovereign nation to ‘…adopt an approach that meets the needs of its own population and geography’.

Indeed when addressing United Nations Special Representative for International Migration Louise Arbour’s call to restore the community’s confidence in migration, the Australian representative began his statement by reflecting on the success of Australia as a migration nation, the success of multiculturalism and the high number of migrants in our population.

Disappointingly he then went on to stress that “our border management policies have led to an increased community confidence in migration management,” and that this remained a “…critical issue that needs to be discussed.”

More on this: Read part 1 of Marianne Dickey's series on a Global Compact for migration

In doing so Australia was at odds with the majority of participants who called for a new approach to mixed movements of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers – an approach that would protect migrants’ rights and provide an equitable means of burden-sharing amongst source, transit and host countries.

Australia’s history clearly demonstrates that the success of multiculturalism and migration is not a result of the implementation of relatively recent border protection policies. Indeed, the success of Australia as a migration nation precludes these policies by decades.

Australia’s move to implement ever-stronger border policies risks that success as a migration nation and decreases the community’s confidence in migration. Policies and legislation originally aimed at refugees and asylum seekers and embedded in the concepts of sovereignty and border security have bled across to other aspects of the migration program. Pathways to migrate to Australia are decreasing, access to citizenship growing harder, and the media is empowered to new heights of xenophobia and discriminatory discourse.

The third panel of the session addressed xenophobia and intolerance. Panellists detailed initiatives being undertaken in their own countries and stressed the importance of language and discourse across all aspects of public life, particularly when discussing refugees and asylum seekers.

The Australian representative again led with the success of multiculturalism and the finding that 83 per cent of Australians felt multiculturalism has been good for Australia, but asked that all positions against migration ‘are not “lumped together” as xenophobia.

More on this: Refugees and an avalanche of numbers

He went on to describe the example of people who may believe in orderly migration but remained concerned about irregular migration issues and he stressed the importance that legitimate debate not be overgeneralised asking,

“ …how can we take forward this very important work without engaging in counterproductive overreach?”

The summary panel provided answers to this question and shone a light on a number of key policies Australia could consider and adopt.

The first was to adopt a global perspective to migration, instead of a regional one. Whilst regional cooperation and processes are necessary, these discussions are about the global nature of migration and aspects that cross national boundaries.

The second was to ensure that there was a fact-based narrative to public discussion on asylum seekers, refugees and migrants. Failure to do so influences the public perception of all migrants.

In order to achieve this, states need to acknowledge that language is important and lead the fight against xenophobia through a public commitment to ensure the language of public discourses around undocumented migrants does not demonise refugees.

Put simply, refusing to use pejorative terms such as ‘illegal immigrants’ and ‘economic migrants’ is a first step to changing public attitudes.

More on this: You can keep your huddled masses

The third was that human rights are not exclusive of sovereignty. In fact, migration and citizenship can and must be based on a human rights framework. Canada stressed this in its statement that “States’ duties to uphold the security of its residents and the rights of migrants are not incompatible…”

The fourth was to reverse Australia’s current policy direction and begin to create more, not less, legal pathways for all migrants including refugees. This means ensuring access to family reunions, visas for all skills levels, and pathways to permanent migration and citizenship. Overwhelmingly, the evidence presented by the panel and participants was that such measures would reduce rather than encourage irregular migration.

Importantly for Australia, the overwhelming majority of participants supported an end to detention. The strong feeling from the participants that detention is not a deterrent demonstrated that Australia’s approach to detention, along with offshore processing, are at odds with the aims and goals of those seeking to contribute to the Global Compact.

If Australia is to truly take part in developing a Global Compact that addresses large-scale movements of people whilst encouraging the economic and social benefits of migration, policymakers need to pay close attention to the areas in which the country is going in the wrong direction.

Australia has a proud record on so many migration initiatives. The discussions highlighted multiple examples of successful policies Australia has implemented that promote stability and cohesion.

Unfortunately, the murky waters presented by the country’s border management policies have hidden its success as a migration country. They also risk binding Australia to a political approach that will prevent real engagement with this ambitious and innovative exchange of ideas and search for a global solution.

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