Opinion

Peter Khalil
Australia should lead way on refugees

Next week, the first United Nations Global Refugee Forum will take place, where member states will try to co-ordinate a response to the largest global refugee crisis since World War II. It is the first step towards a necessary international processing and resettlement agreement.

Marise Payne, Australia’s foreign minister, has not committed to attending. Nor has the Morrison government made any public statement about what role Australia might play in the UN talks. This is unsurprising, given Australia’s approach to refugee policy: singularly focused on the domestic politics, consistently sidestepping broader engagement with the global challenge. We are a successful multicultural migrant nation with a history of welcoming refugees. Yet our potential to contribute to a global solution remains unrealised.

The UN refugee forum represents an opportunity for Australia to change this and lead the development and negotiation of a co-ordinated global agreement, one that could process and resettle hundreds of thousands more refugees each year. This new approach should be based on the principle of each country doing its fair share to respond to the crisis – replacing the policy disarray that defines the response to refugees worldwide and, in Australia, to the detriment of our security and prosperity.

We bear witness to population movements across the world at unprecedented levels and think we can avoid the cost or the impact. But no matter how insulated we believe we are from these forces, by virtue of our geography and our current fortress mentality, the waves of future mass migrations could well breach the gates.

The sheer scale of the global humanitarian crisis can no longer be denied. There are more than 70 million displaced people globally. Of these, 41.3 million are internally displaced, 3.5 million are seeking asylum and 25.9 million are refugees. Of the refugees, 1.4 million face imminent threat and are considered in need of urgent resettlement.

When a voter in my electorate asks about refugees, their focus is usually on domestic policy. I answer them, and then ask a question of my own: How many of the world’s 25.9 million refugees were resettled last year?

They will usually guess two million, maybe three million people. When I tell them it was just 92,400 people, they begin to comprehend the scale of the challenge. The “queue” is not moving anywhere fast, or getting any smaller.

Desperate asylum seekers, with their lives at risk, seek refugee status by using people smugglers to take them to safety. As such they have been described as “queue jumpers” and perceived to be circumventing due process. But with UNHCR facilities overwhelmed and minuscule global resettlement of refugees annually, there is very little in the way of a queue in the first place.

The immensity of the challenge and the ineffectiveness of responses, both in Australia and abroad, are clear to anyone who cares to examine the numbers. In 2018, Canada accepted 28,076 refugees, the world’s highest contribution; followed by the United States, 22,900; and Australia, 12,706. Meanwhile, some developed nations such as Portugal accepted as few as 35 refugees for permanent resettlement.

As the “queue” barely moves, it is developing nations – including Sudan, Lebanon, Bangladesh, Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda – their resources already stretched, that host 84 per cent of the world’s refugees and displaced people.

The UN’s forum represents a consensus that nations cannot continue to respond reactively or in isolation. The sheer scale demands nations work together. Yet Australia has been unable or unwilling to do this.

It has been almost two decades since Tampa and the Howard government’s response, which laid down the blueprint for zones of cruel, indefinite offshore detention that persist to this day. Some argue indefinite offshore detention has made us safer and insulated Australia from the broader global crisis. However, it only suspends our engagement with a growing global challenge.

This callous approach does not serve our national interests in addressing the global crisis and it is unsustainable in the long term, because the “deterrent effect” of indefinite offshore detention is not the primary reason people-smuggling operations have reduced. The trade has reduced largely because of covert and overt anti-people-smuggling operations, including targeting financial transactions and turnbacks.

Australian political leaders have been unable to articulate alternatives. Instead of collaborating with other countries towards a best-practice model, we have shifted responsibility, not really even to other nations but somewhere out there, some nebulous elsewhere. Anywhere but here.

Our approach has failed globally and domestically. The strength and security of our country has been diminished in a fundamental way. We have taken some of the most important building blocks of our modern nation – immigration, refugee policy and multiculturalism –and securitised and politicised them. The toxic debate has corroded the broadly held view that immigration, including of refugees, has benefited Australia’s social, economic and cultural life in countless ways.

We are losing the bipartisan commitment to the fundamental story of migration to Australia; one of nation building, with a pathway to citizenship at its heart.

Ultimately, this corrosive debate around refugees and migrants weakens our democracy and social cohesion. Australia has become more polarised, less stable, less secure, because we cannot move past the toxicity and enact viable, humane solutions or successfully capitalise on the advantages that the cultural diversity of our migrant nation affords us.

The conservative side of politics post-Tampa has created a framework that positions asylum seekers and refugees as external threats to be feared. The refugee is viewed as potential terrorist, welfare cheat, taker of our jobs, criminal and eroder of Australian values.

Labor has operated uncomfortably both within and outside this framework, attempting to ameliorate the worst aspects, trying unsuccessfully to establish the Malaysia solution in government and more recently from opposition chipping away at its periphery, by passing the medevac bill into law. Nonetheless it endures, and we have not been able to reach beyond. But it is time we start, because the global refugee crisis is likely to worsen.

Repressive and failed states, sectarianism, violent conflict, the impacts of climate change and natural disasters will continue to drive new conflict over depleted resources and population displacement. Our current blinkered solutions do not address these impacts. The alternative must be to work towards a new international agreement.

This is why I propose that Australia lead the development and negotiations for an international refugee processing and resettlement agreement – the “Fair Share Agreement” – with multiple countries agreeing to lift their ambitions and resettle hundreds of thousands more refugees each year around the world.

A “Fair Share Agreement” would draw on the distinctly Australian value of egalitarianism. Each country’s increased commitment to settling refugees would be calculated fairly based on negotiated and agreed-upon metrics and set data points. These could include population, GDP per capita, geography, net migration numbers, strength of resettlement services and relative historical refugee intake. Developed countries that opt out of increasing their intake would, under the agreement, make commensurate financial contributions to resettlement services.

Coupled with the retention of anti-people-smuggling operations, a “Fair Share Agreement” with multiple countries taking more refugees each year would finally get the “queue” moving. This would not only be a more humane alternative to indefinite detention, but over time significantly reduce the demand for people smuggling.

Sceptics will question whether there is any hope of success. However, we only have to look back a generation to see how multilateral agreements worked. Between 1975 and 1995, Australia accepted about 130,000 refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Under multilateral agreements, 69,877 refugees were resettled in Australia between 1975 and 1982 – of these, only about 2000 people arrived by boat. Most flew to Australia once their claims were processed through regional agreements in Asia.

History shows us viable alternatives to our current policies. An answer to Australia’s domestic challenges on refugee policy lies in engaging and co-ordinating with the international community. If Australia wants other countries to commit to shared responsibilities, we must also lead.

While the present government won’t, the Labor Party must draw on its internationalist DNA to provide alternatives and leadership. Labor has a proud lineage of international vision and achievement – then prime minister John Curtin’s wartime leadership, Doc Evatt’s leading role in founding the UN, and former foreign minister Gareth Evans’ many contributions to international relations.

Last month, Anthony Albanese affirmed the centrality of multilateralism and regional engagement as principles underpinning Labor foreign policy and national security. Australia is a better nation, a safer nation, when we embrace global leadership roles.

My hope is that with political courage tethered to an internationalist vision, we embrace the task of leading a global effort that enhances our national security, moves us beyond debilitating domestic debates and changes millions of lives for the better.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "Rebalancing mass displacement". Subscribe here.

Peter Khalil
is the federal Labor member for Wills and has served as a foreign policy adviser to the prime minister (2007-2008), an executive director at SBS and a Victorian multicultural commissioner.