Australia can reset and reform its refugee and asylum seeker policy by looking to its past successes and best current practice from around the world, a leading refugee law study centre has found, to create a “principled and pragmatic” approach.
The UNSW Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law has examined best practice refugee policy throughout the world, crafting seven principles as a foundation for “a more positive, long term approach” to how Australia treats those seeking asylum.
In a paper to be launched by the UNSW chancellor, David Gonski, on Thursday, the Kaldor Centre director, Prof Jane McAdam, lays out principles for Australia’s refugee policy based on what has worked, and is working, to better meet international obligations, the needs of asylum seekers and the countries who take them in.
“It is looking and learning from good practices from our own history and from overseas,” she told the Guardian Australia.
“I think for over 75 years, Australia provided really positive outcomes for refugees – for a long time we were a global leader in protection and we gave people the chance for a new life, new opportunities and a renewed hope.
“But in the last 25 years, our policy has changed direction somewhat and we have ended up with things like offshore processing, boat turnbacks and mandatory detention, which not only deny the humanity to people that applied and deflect problems elsewhere, but also violate many of our obligations under international law.”
That change, which McAdam said grew progressively from the “unfortunate conflation” of the 2001 Tampa refugee crisis with the September 11 attacks just a few weeks later, “led to a rushing through of really draconian laws”, which had been built on by successive governments.
“The political rhetoric that has been developed over the last 25 years has served to de-humanise and demonise people who have done nothing wrong,” McAdam said.
“Everyone has the right to seek asylum and Australia, like every other country that has signed up to the refugee convention, has an obligation to ensure that we don’t send people back to persecution, or serious harm and unfortunately Australia’s policies not only violate that, but violate many other parts of international law, including, in particular, our policy of mandatory and indefinite detention.”
To reset the last quarter of a century of refugee policy, McAdam said Australian governments did not have to look far.
First, Australia needed to comply with its international legal obligations, which included not sending people back to places where they faced a real risk of harm or persecution, which would include an end to boat turnbacks.
That would also mean repealing parts of the Migration Act while also repealing offshore detention.
The second principle would be an end to mandatory, indefinite detention to provide “humane, fair reception conditions”. Asylum seekers should be processed within Australia and given dignified living conditions.
Next, there should be a “fair, efficient and transparent” system to process asylum claims, with decisions made by “suitably qualified, independent” adjudicators. This would include access to legal advice and representation, as found in some Scandinavian countries, and an independent review process, such as the one found in France and Canada, was also deemed crucial.
Fourth, the system should respect the principles of family unity and the best interests of the child, with the Netherlands, EU and Sweden all showing examples of best practice. It must also provide additional safe, lawful pathways to protection, including safe routes to seek asylum, and community and private sponsorship were also suggested.
Australia implemented its own special humanitarian program in 2015 and 2017, under Tony Abbott’s directive, for asylum seekers fleeing Iraq and Syria, which the Centre uses as a best practice example, as well as noting the 1979 to 1997 community resettlement program, which helped more than 30,000 refugees.
Providing global and regional leadership on refugee protection, through engaging and cooperating with other countries to ensure protection and durable solutions for those fleeing conflict, as was done for Indochinese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s, formed the basis of the sixth principle.
The seventh, and final, related to investment in refugees once settled in Australia, for their own and the nation’s long-term success, which would involve increasing the funding and flexibility offered to those who arrive through established programs, to all those who seek Australia’s protection.
“What we can see is that no real thought has been given to what is the end game when it comes to a policy like offshore processing,” McAdam said.
“We have people still languishing on Nauru and Manus Island after six years, with very few durable solutions in sight. And so that policy is costing billions of dollars, but also is costing people their lives in some cases, and certainly their mental health.
“The levels of trauma on Manus and Nauru have been described by experts as worse than any warzone or refugee camp in the world.
“So that is why the Kaldor Centre principles put forward a long-term vision, a sustainable vision, that is informed by good practices, past and present, to get Australia back on track.”