Forced migration is an age-old phenomenon. It cannot be stopped or controlled by any country. The reasons for it are as varied and complex as the people who seek protection from persecution, war, civil conflict and other harms.
In its 2013 Global Trends report, UNHCR estimated there are over 51 million people displaced around the world, the highest figure since World War II. Not all are displaced across international borders, and only a fraction of the world’s displaced seek Australia’s protection.
Nevertheless, it is likely that global phenomena, such as civil war, increased resource scarcity, and the impacts of natural disasters and climate change, will increase the impetus for people to move in search of safety. Australia cannot ignore this continuing reality.
Recently, the major political parties in Australia have responded to this state of affairs by treating the challenge of forced migration primarily as a matter of domestic politics, rather than regional policy. Debate on asylum policy has become toxic. ‘Successful’ policy has been defined as that which can ‘stop the boats’.
On that measure, policies initiated by the previous Labor government, and strengthened by the Coalition government under the banner Operation Sovereign Borders, have been successful in significantly reducing the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat.
However, this approach does not deal with the complex nature of forced migration, its causes and human consequences, nor Australia’s responsibility within the international community to help to manage these and related issues. This approach does not resemble a long-term asylum and refugee policy for Australia.
To establish one, we must redefine our conception of the ‘problem’, reset our goals, review our strategy and recalibrate our conception of ‘success’.
The roundtable discussion concentrated on two issues:
a. Recent Australian policy responses to maritime asylum seekers; and
b. The need to move towards a long-term asylum policy that could feasibly win the support of all political parties and all Australians, enabling the nation to contribute more constructively to this ongoing problem.
Australia is an attractive destination for asylum seekers, as it is in a region where few countries are parties to the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol.
In the period 2012–13, there was an upsurge in the numbers of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat, both in overall terms (30,310 between January 2012 and July 2013) and in intensity (over 3,000 arrivals per month between March and July 2013). People smugglers facilitated many of these journeys. Since 2001 approximately 1,400 people are known to have died seeking to reach Australian shores. There was no obvious upper limit to the number of asylum seekers that might attempt to come by sea.
Both major political parties have, in response, given a clear and unambiguous signal to people smugglers that future efforts to secure permanent protection in Australia for their paying clients will fail. That is the context in which future policy must be developed at the present time. The announcement of bipartisan support for denial of access to Australia for ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ has almost certainly had a deterrent effect on the activities of people smugglers, but it risks closing the protection space.