There goes the neighbourhood: Australia and New Zealand destroying hope of a regional approach to asylum seekers

Guest Blogger: Alex Pagliaro, Amnesty International

alex-pagliaroIn recent days New Zealand has jumped on the Australian refugee policy bandwagon, announcing that it would resettle 150 of Australia’s refugees each year, and that any asylum seekers arriving in its own waters may be sent straight to Nauru or Manus Island in the future.

Instead of heralding a new age of regional cooperation on refugee protections, this is a disastrous move for asylum seekers across our region, maybe even around the world.

This deal itself has no real practical outcomes, regional or otherwise.

Firstly, 150 refugees is a tiny number by Australian standards and utterly insignificant by global levels. Secondly, the 150 refugees sent to New Zealand each year will still have to live in limbo for up to five years under the punitive ‘no advantage policy’, so they’re no better or worse off.  And thirdly, for obvious geographical reasons, New Zealand has never had any asylum seekers arriving by boat and is unlikely to in the future.

But this deal isn’t about practical outcomes, it’s about sending ‘messages.’ And despite what both governments would have you believe, the message is not that they’re committed to a regional approach, it’s the exact opposite.

We live in a region with the highest number of refugees in the world and lowest proportion of countries who have signed the Refugee Convention.

Many regional countries – Malaysia, Thailand, Pakistan, Indonesia – host thousands (or hundreds of thousands) more refugees than Australia or New Zealand do. These countries have not signed the Refugee Convention and offer little to no protection to refugees and asylum seekers – in many cases, they actively target them for further abuse.

We also live in a world where official migration paths from developing to developed countries are slowly but surely being shut. These safer, ‘more official’ pathways to Australia (and other developed countries) that politicians frequently refer to, simply do not exist for the vast majority of refugees.

An Afghan in Pakistan cannot apply for a permanent visa to Australia with any hope of success, neither can a Burmese in Malaysia or a Sri Lankan in India. Ironically, even temporary visas (like student or visitor visas) are very unlikely because governments are suspicious they might apply for asylum once they get here!

It’s this trend that forces most people into taking that dangerous boat journey.

The discourse in Australia seems to imply that these ‘pesky boat people’ have plenty of other options but instead ‘choose’ the quick, easy boat trip.

For the vast majority the ‘options’ are these: stay where you are and face torture, disappearance or death; wait for years, possibly forever, in a refugee camp for resettlement or return; endure life in a city where you’ll never have legal rights and you and your family are under constant threat of arrest, abuse and exploitation; give a stranger all your (and probably your family’s) money to take you to a place you know nothing about except that the stranger says it’s safe.

That’s what our politicians are referring to when they say ‘choices’ and ‘options’, and their own Parliamentary Library has just confirmed it for them.

Sadly this new Australia-New Zealand deal, like most of the Australian Government’s recent refugee initiatives, is just another way to send awful messages. The message to asylum seekers and refugees is that they should cross ‘dangerous boat journey to Australia’ off their ever dwindling list of options.

But the only real answer, of course, is to expand those options. Nobody would choose the risky boat journey if they feel there is a better, safer way for them.

We need to tackle the reasons why people are forced to flee their homes in the first place.

We need to focus on increasing resettlement numbers from camps and cities across the world, and improve levels of protection and safety in all countries, especially those in our own region.

And finally, countries like Australia and New Zealand who have signed the Refugee Convention, have to lead by example rather than act like protecting refugees who arrive at your door stop in genuine need of help is something to be avoided at all cost. After all, if Australia and New Zealand are willing to go to such lengths to avoid offering genuine protection, then why should Malaysia or Thailand do any better?

Alex Pagliaro is the refugee campaigner for Amnesty International Australia. She will be speaking with Professor Harry Minas at the Castan Centre’s event Seeking security: Refugee policy in a time of complexity and change tomorrow night in Melbourne. Although the event is fully subscribed, you can follow along on Twitter.

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