The war on boats: Let’s bring facts to national conversation

There is no comparable country that has taken such a draconian position as Australia has done

Published 7 November 2016

In this extended essay for Pursuit, Erika Feller, a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Melbourne and a former UN Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees, writes that Australia’s refugee debate is deliberately or otherwise mired in a mass of half truths and misinformation – with both sides at fault

Yet another piece of contestable legislation is about to be debated in Australia’s Parliament, to be added to this country’s arsenal of weapons in its war on boat asylum seekers. It is not clear what it will actually say, or even why it is seen as necessary at this point, other than to strengthen the deterrence message. Regardless, it is very depressing.

Growing up throughout the 1950s and 1960s I felt optimistic about the future and grateful to have been born in Australia, able to enjoy not only its pleasures but also the many life opportunities it offered.

I was proud to represent Australia in international fora as a career diplomat, which I did for over a decade. Human rights counted then for successive governments. They were not wary of initiatives to try and redress wrongs at home, while investing in a better global system, built on laws and responsive institutions. Australia was seen as “one of the good guys”, a country where international responsibilities were taken seriously and honoured. That included responsibilities to refugees. It was here that thousands upon thousands of refugees, my father included, had been given their second chance in life. And, as refugees do, they gave back to their adopted homeland in multiple ways.

A woman cooks for her children in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan. Picture: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In 1986 I took up what was to have been a short-term secondment to work with the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR. It lasted 26 years. Over that time I learnt a great deal about refugee law and protection, but possibly more important, about refugees and, through them, about human resilience, dignity and generosity.

Working with refugees was a continuous learning experience. It taught me about the power of human will over adversity and about the ability of people confronted by huge setbacks to find within themselves the capacity not only to survive, but to thrive.

Refugee dramas confront you with your own limitations. I always found it extraordinary that children thrive, women give birth, people grow old in circumstances and places where conditions of life are less than rudimentary.

I still find it almost inconceivable how families can trek for days on end, subsisting only on what is available to forage, that they can survive in shelters that keep out neither the blazing heat nor the bitter cold, that they can rise above the dust and dirt of camps or shanty towns when it comes to health and personal hygiene, and above all that they can maintain their dignity and offer their hospitality even in circumstances of extraordinary personal deprivation. The exhilaration of those who make it, who acquire a new place to re-build shattered lives, is one of the more rewarding experiences of work with UNHCR.

Of course none of this would ever be possible without the generosity of host countries that open their doors, local populations who accept refugees into their communities for first asylum and countries that offer a longer-term solution through resettlement and integration programs.

To appreciate this generosity, it’s telling to start with some figures. Ethiopia is the biggest host country in Africa with more than 730,000 refugees. Tanzania, a long-term refuge for Burundian refugees among others, has recently moved to naturalise over 160,000 of them so they can stay permanently. Some 92,000 asylum seekers reached Yemen in 2015, mainly by boat, and were allowed to enter, despite ongoing conflict, an already existing refugee population of 267,000, and some 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) inside the country.

Well before the headline-making influx into Germany of over one million asylum seekers and migrants, Germany had been regularly receiving and processing well over 100,000 asylum seekers a year, including more than 400,000 in 2015. This was on top of a resettlement intake. The US resettlement program, running together with a large intake of direct arrivals, is currently at 85,000 a year, with a pledge from President Obama to increase it to 110,000 in 2017. In 2015 the US took 60% of the 107,100 refugees who were able to access resettlement that year. Of the total, Canada took 20,000 and Australia 9400.

More complex and more protracted

Figures alone are, of course, not the only measure of generosity. Taking GDP as the starting point, by the end of last year the 30 countries with the highest refugee to GDP ratio were all developing countries, except for Russia. In 2015, Sweden and Malta were the only high-income countries to appear among the top 10, with 17 refugees per 1000 population. Lebanon, with just over 4000 square miles of territory, is host to well over a million Syrian refugees. One in four residents of that country is now a refugee.

These are all situations born of harsh facts. Refugee and displacement situations are becoming ever larger, more complex and more protracted. The numbers are high, with a displacement figure, all in, around 65 million, with close to two thirds remaining trapped in their own countries as internally displaced persons.

There are more than 160 refugee host countries, with by far the biggest refugee numbers to be found in countries like Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, Kenya or Ethiopia. Nine out of every 10 refugees arrive, and stay, in countries like these, struggling to meet the development needs of their own populations. Most end up in remote regions badly serviced, if at all, by health and education facilities, clean water or sanitary arrangements.

The host areas are often insecure and conflict-impacted and home as well to many internally displaced persons. Work or self-sufficiency possibilities are virtually absent, if even permitted. Less than 1 in 40 refugee situations are resolved within three years, with more than 80% lasting for 10 years or more.

A boy inside a refugee camp in Eritrea. Picture: Samout3/Flickr

The refugee problem is increasingly urbanised. While many refugees do eventually get access to basic camp support structures, significant numbers have to survive with little assistance in marginalised urban slums. Refugee children in a number of countries are to be found shining shoes in the street, begging, living under bridges, and outside any regular school or primary health care system. So-called survival sex is not uncommon.

There is now the largest ever gap between needs and available resources. UNHCR’s budget for 2016 is around $6 billion, of which programs for Syria and Europe are only funded to approximately 50%. It is much worse when it comes to less high-profile programs, for Somalia, South Sudan or the Central African Republic (CAR) for example, where the figure drops to 20%. So conditions are far more likely to worsen than improve, which certainly dampens the incentive to continue to hang on. With global resettlement places available for less than 1% of the refugee total, and the prediction being that by 2017 some 1.19 million will need resettlement, the incentive to stand in the mythical queue is also not so high.

To understand why some refugees – of the total number, still a very small proportion – chance their life and that of their families on boats, one has to set off their journey against all of this background. Life choices are ever more relativised, and for a number these include boats. In 2015 over a million asylum seekers crossed the Mediterranean by boat. 84% of the boat arrivals in Europe that year came from the top 10 refugee producing countries. The numbers in the Asia region have been very much less, even at their height, but among them refugees were very present.

The war on boats in Australia seems to be intensifying, with legislation soon to be debated designed to preclude forever any entry into the country of any sort for almost all who have had or will have the temerity to try the boat route. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, of course was not – but might have been – talking about this boat war when he noted recently how the “legal and moral boundaries established to mitigate the impact of war on civilians are crossed every day more deliberately and with more impunity”.

The reasons for this degenerating situation are many, regularly analysed by those who have followed it much more closely than I over recent times. A recent piece in The Conversation is provocative in this regard. I focus here on just one reason which strikes me as deserving much greater prominence than it has received hitherto, given that it seems to serve as an important underpinning of Australia’s overall asylum approach. This reason I would characterise as a remarkable obfuscation of the realities of the refugee experience, of how others have reacted, of how Australia’s response stacks up, and of the rights and responsibilities actually at issue.

Half truths and misinformation

The asylum debate here is deliberately or otherwise mired in a bewildering mass of half truths and misinformation. There are different degrees of fault on both sides of the debate. The national discussion, broadly speaking, has been acrimonious, divisive, often elemental and ill-informed for far too long. It has fuelled attitudes locally and policies nationally and regionally which are unnecessarily alarmist and defensive, not to mention legally on the margins and morally indefensible. It is no wonder, then, that public engagement with the issue is so polarised, that the Government is backed politically and legally into a corner it is hard to get out of, and that hundreds of people remain trapped as a result in an appalling and dangerous detention situation doing, probably, lasting mental and physical damage to so many of them.

There is no denying that boat arrivals can become a problem for governments and for the receiving communities. It is a challenge, in a world of growing connections and human mobility, to manage borders. States do have a legitimate interest in putting an end to the reprehensible people smuggling industry, in policing their borders and in dealing resolutely with transnational crime. It also needs to be said very clearly that not all asylum seekers who arrive by boat have genuine refugee claims. An approach which differentiates between refugees and migrants is not only warranted, but is necessary to preserve the integrity of the asylum system.

Refugees from Africa land at Messina in Sicily on 16 May, 2016. Picture: Patrick Russo/UNHCR

There is, though, a difference between properly managing a problem and deflecting it elsewhere, in disregard of needs, rights and responsibilities. Successive Australian Governments have taken a very tough approach to boat arrivals. Deterrence – in the form of remote and sparsely provisioned holding centres, delayed processing of asylum applications, and indefinite detention, including of children – is at its centre.

There is no other comparable country that can be pointed to which has taken such a draconian position, with such long-term negative consequences. One hears with consistent regularity that all of this is in furtherance of the over-riding humanitarian objective of stopping deaths at sea. This is at best disingenuous. Deterrence here deflects the problem elsewhere. Desperate people will find other boats as long as the push factors remain. With the Turkey-Greece access impeded, the Libya-Italy route has resumed.

The public rationale of saving lives sounds humanitarian but overlooks some key considerations. These include:

  • That if not all asylum seekers are refugees, a substantial majority have been found to be, and these are people who have serious safety concerns not at all addressed, rather exacerbated, through this approach;

  • That all people have a right expressed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and endorsed by successive Australian Governments to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution;

  • That this right was as recently reaffirmed, including by Australia, as September 2016 at two international summits in New York;

  • That cruel treatment, arbitrary detention, and no foreseeable, viable solutions is double victimisation for refugees, outside what is permissible under globally acceptable standards of treatment;

  • That we are in fact talking about burden-shifting because deterrence does not solve the push factors which put people on the boats in the first place, so the journeys – and the deaths at sea – will continue, just under some other country’s watch;

  • That enormous amounts of money, not so far removed from UNHCR’s annual budget, are going on a non-solution for in reality minimal numbers of people, in a way which is creating a host of other problems, including for children;

  • That the deterrence approach requires a domestic legal underpinning which is leading to extraordinary and deeply concerning legislative initiatives directed at distancing Australia ever further from the reach of its international responsibilities;

  • That there are other ways of responding to the challenge of boats that avoid all this without compromising core security concerns.

As part of this list, there is another point to make as well. The 1951 Refugee Convention framework is not the problem, as it is sometimes characterised to be. There have been recurring calls for Australia to consider withdrawing from the Convention on the basis that it is an outdated relic of the Cold War era which imposes heavy obligations out of step with modern realities. Really? It would be exceedingly hard to explain why guaranteeing the right to life, in a manner which is non-discriminatory, and enabling people for as long as they are on territory to enjoy a minimum basic decency, security of person and respect under the law, is in any way an outdated relic of former times.

I suggest that any person who accuses the Convention of being at the root of the problems has probably not read or understood it. Its provisions are general, many hedged with qualifying clauses limiting and restricting their application. The Convention does not define which state must provide solutions for which individuals. It does not require recognition by a State of refugee status to be followed by lasting stay on its territory. It rests on concepts of burden and responsibility-sharing, but does not define how they should be apportioned. The main issue with the Convention is most usually the laws introduced to implement it. These are at the discretion of the State, and the margins for this discretion are very wide.

On 19 and 20 September 2016, New York was host to two major conferences. States, including Australia, adopted the New York Declaration on Refugees and Migrants and put on the table some more specific national commitments to help and protect refugees. They re-affirmed the enduring relevance of the international refugee protection regime, recognised that refugees are a shared international responsibility and committed to the implementation of a comprehensive refugee response. Priorities were endorsed, including increased humanitarian assistance and resettlement opportunities, as well as creating more possibilities for legal admission into countries.

In a Joint Statement by the co-hosts (Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, Sweden and the US) of the so-called Leaders’ Summit on the second day, it was confirmed: “Throughout we have, of course, continued to reaffirm the obligation of states to respect international law, international human rights law, and where applicable, international refugee law and international humanitarian law. We convened today’s Summit with these goals in mind ...”

The summits have together been hailed as a breakthrough in global responsibility-sharing for refugees. One can but hope that all these fine words translate themselves, in this country, into new directions for thinking and action and a revamped approach to asylum which pays heed to rights and to offsetting irrational fears. International solidarity and burden sharing has to come back into the equation in a more balanced way.

The facts and refugee realities need to be made the basis for policy formulation, with core values and principles reinstated at the centre. And the people on Manus and Nauru need to be provided with a viable and decent solution to their predicament, with the utmost urgency.

Banner Image: A file image of a boat carrying asylum seekers arriving at Christmas Island. Picture: Rossbach/Krepp/AAP

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