Government and governance, Social policy | Australia

22 September 2017

In the third part of her series on the development of a Global Compact for migration, Marianne Dickie writes that in an era of climate change and increased forced migration, Australia should do more to support labour mobility in its own region.

It is hard to forget the 2015 image of Australia’s then Prime Minister Tony Abbott joking with Ministers Peter Dutton and Scott Morrison about rising sea levels in the Pacific Islands. Nor is it possible to eradicate the disquiet caused by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s more recent description to Trump of recognised refugees on Manus Island as “basically economic refugees from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan”.

Both of these attitudes were at times echoed by Australia’s contribution to the recent United Nations’ Second International Thematic session seeking to develop a Global Compact on Safe Orderly and Regular Migration.

The focus of the Second Thematic session was addressing drivers of migration. This must be one of the most difficult themes an international panel can address. Drivers of migration are diverse and unpredictable. They include unemployment, poverty, and importantly human-made and natural disasters.

The last panel of this second session was held in the weeks following the bombings in Manchester. There could be no clearer image of a global need to address human-made conflict than a terrorist attack on children and teenagers attending a concert.

Unfortunately, it is unsurprising that those chairing the sessions as well as the contributors continue to struggle to separate the concept of refugees from those forced to migrate. This conflict highlighted the need to avoid reducing migrants to categories of refugees or economic migrants. Representatives from participating countries stressed that the Refugee Convention may not capture all people who flee conflict, yet other human rights instruments can and do fill the void. It is up to nations to be open to considering claims to assistance and protection.

More on this: Part 1: The funny thing about human rights

Importantly, they raised the fact that drivers can and do overlap, making it impossible to assign the real reason for migration to one cause. Significantly, when migration is undertaken as a necessity rather than a choice, migrants may be at a greater risk of human rights violations throughout their journey.

In looking to address the drivers of migration, governments reiterated that the primary focus should not be on stopping migration. Rather, there has to be a commitment to reducing the adverse factors that motivate people to move in unsafe, often desperate and dangerous, conditions, while enabling migration to be safe, regular and orderly, so that the beneficial impact of migration is maximised for migrants as well as the countries and communities of destination and of origin.

Australia’s contribution to the debate focused on its ‘tough stance’ on people smugglers, as well as the need to tackle the causes of irregular migration through official development assistance in the Southeast Asia region.

The development assistance referred to by Australia is its Pacific Regional Aid Program, which comes from Australia’s foreign aid budget. Sadly, despite the rhetoric and the obvious need for foreign aid to address drivers of irregular migration, our foreign aid budget remains at an eight-year low.

The second session saw Australia recognising the effects of environmental and human-made disasters and calling for adaption strategies in countries affected to manage disaster risks, explaining that “[t]he added shock of a sudden onset disaster to an already vulnerable population can lead to a breeding ground for human traffickers and others seeking to profit from human suffering”.

In addressing climate change as a driver of migration, Australia stated that it supports the view that “[t]he best response to climate-induced migration where feasible is effective adaptation and well-supported internal relocation rather than cross-border resettlement as a first response.”

The need to invest in mechanisms other than cross-border resettlement is also one supported by Pacific Island nations. The 2008 Niue Declaration on Climate Change, for instance, recorded the desire of Pacific peoples to continue to live in their own countries where possible.

An example of an adaption strategy by Australia is its circular labour mobility schemes. These schemes are intended to provide temporary migration opportunities to people from countries in the region that are acutely affected by issues such as climate change. They allow workers to enter and work temporarily in specific areas and are supposed to provide opportunities for workers to send remittances back to their home country.

More on this: Part 2: Australia out of step on refugees on world stage

As a means of addressing drivers of forced migration and assisting development in Pacific communities, Australia’s mobility scheme – the Seasonal Worker Program, is very small. Along with other temporary visa work schemes, it continues to involve systems that increase the vulnerability of the temporary migrant, whilst doing very little to enhance the skills of workers or their ability to migrate in a regular and orderly manner should the need to do so arise.

This is because the Seasonal Workers Program is not primarily designed to assist Pacific Island nations. Its primary purpose is to meet short-term seasonal labour needs of Australian employers in industries that experience seasonal peaks. However, it is a scheme that is claimed to help those who wish to gain skills and send home remittances to support their families. And whilst the objectives are sound, the actual implementation of this scheme continues to be limited and problematic.

Like other workers on temporary visas, the power balance between the employer and the visa holder remains a key reason workers do not complain about conditions or pay. Parliamentary inquiries have exposed the vulnerabilities of people working under this scheme, including the deaths of ten seasonal workers in the past five years.

New Zealand currently takes 10,500 temporary workers annually through their Recognised Seasonal Employer Program which includes programs of education for workers. Australia’s program assisted a little over 4,000 people, presents no pathway to permanent residency, no access to education, and provides no long-term solutions for the temporary migrant.

Australia remains one of a handful of states that considers the objective of reducing migration a legitimate means of managing orderly migration. The majority are calling for an ongoing dialogue between origin, transit and destination countries. As a destination country, Australia could link the needs of the region with migration both on a temporary and permanent basis through an increase access to education, skilled and importantly low-skilled work and training visas.

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