Just over a week ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Mr. Ruud Lubbers, made a highly significant statement which has received almost no coverage in the Australian press. In effect, Mr. Lubbers advocates exactly what Australia's Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock has been arguing for at least the last couple of years, on how the world-wide flow of refugees should be tackled. That is, the advent of large-scale people smuggling and related phenomena pose huge challenges to the Refugee Convention which cannot simply be ignored, and which call for major revision or supplementation of the Convention itself. The key passage in Mr. Lubbers' statement is:
"Lubbers acknowledged current challenges like “asylum shopping” and people smuggling. Reiterating UNHCR’s desire to work with governments to find solutions for refugees, he suggested some new agreements to “supplement” the 1951 Refugee Convention, the cornerstone of international refugee protection.
While stressing the continuing centrality and validity of the 1951 Refugee Convention – a status reaffirmed in Geneva last December by states parties to the instrument – the High Commissioner said it had also “become clear that the Convention alone does not suffice”.
He called for a new approach – which he termed “Convention Plus” – involving “a number of special agreements aimed at managing the challenges of today and tomorrow in a spirit of international co-operation”.
“A major concern today is the issue of secondary movements of refugees and asylum seekers,” said Lubbers, referring to those who had already reached a first country of asylum but then decided to move on. “I am convinced that the international community needs new agreements to deal with cross-cutting issues such as this. These new agreements would supplement the Convention and form part of multilateral frameworks for protecting refugees and achieving durable solutions, primarily in regions of origin." "
In effect, what would occur under the new UNHCR vision is that multilateral agreements would be reached with "first asylum countries" (e.g. Pakistan and Iran in relation to refugee-generating countries like Afghanistan and Iraq), whereby they would agree to provide safe asylum in refugee camps, in return for much more generous first world assistance in hosting those facilities. First asylum countries would also agree to accept the involuntary return of unsuccesful asylum seekers from first world countries. At present, many first asylum countries will only accept voluntary returnees. More than a few countries of origin take exactly the same stance. The result is that there are large numbers of rejected asylum seekers who remain in limbo in the first world, with no clear status but with their hosts being unable to remove them despite having found they have no valid claim to asylum. Many if not most of the remaining Australian asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru fall into that category, as do some at Woomera etc.
I have always thought that co-ordinated generous first world funding of refugee hosting in first asylum countries would be the most effective means of dealing with the huge world-wide problem of refugees and displaced persons. Generous funding would make hosting refugee camps a quite desirable thing for many countries: it provides local jobs and economic stimulus. Just as importantly, it would allow first world resources to be spent far more effectively on relieving the massive refugee problem at its source. The most recent estimate is that there are about 20 million refugees and displaced persons worldwide. Only a miniscule proportion of them could ever be acommodated by re-settlement in first world countries.
The current system results in the available resources being largely wasted. In 1997-98, the Australian Government spent in the order of $AUS 80 million on the enforcement of immigration law. This cost rose to $AUS 131 million in 1998-99, to $AUS 247 million in 1999-2000, and to $AUS 299 million in 2000-2001. This is a direct result of the increase in "boat people" arrivals from a few hundred throughout the 1990s to about 4,500 in each of the two years immediately preceding "Tampa". On average, it costs the Government $AUS 50,000 for every unauthorised arrival by boat from the time of arrival to the time of their departure from Australia. (source - recent speech by Minister Ruddock). Of course, these figures don't include the enormous cost of the "Tampa" exercise itself, or the Pacific solution and naval blockade which followed.
The effect of providing adequate resourcing to first asylum countries, so that they fully co-operate in offering safe asylum and accepting involuntary returnees from the first world, would be to relieve first world countries of this huge financial burden of processing onshore asylum seekers and enforcing border protection policies. Most "boat people" would simply be returned in fairly short order to the "first asylum" country from which they had departed. Moreover, that would be completely in accordance with existing Refugee Convention obligations. The Convention has always allowed return where durable asylum is available in another country. Once it became generally known that this was the new system, and that paying lots of money to the people smugglers was pointless, "asylum shopping" would mostly cease. That would free up resources to be devoted to addressing the problems which actually cause refugee flows in the first place (although whether that would actually occur is much more debatable - politicians are not renowned for taking the long view). Moreover, inducements could be built into the system for first world countries able to accept some asylum seekers for permanent or semi-permanent re-settlement. For example Australia, which has the largest offshore refugee and humanitarian program in the world on a per capita basis, might be required to make a slightly lesser financial contribution than more densely-populated countries which don't want a larger population. Australia would then have a financial incentive to boost the size of its offshore program.
In summary, although Phillip Ruddock is dead wrong in continuing to implement a draconian detention regime for asylum seeking families (although viable alternatives to it are by no means as clear), his arguments on the "big picture" of what is needed to tackle the international refugee problem are dead right. It seems that no lesser person than the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees now agrees with him. I wonder why the Australian media hasn't taken more notice.