September 21, 2022

There are eight million displaced people across our region: what can Australia be doing?

Internal displacement is now caused three times more by disasters than conflict. This, coupled with grave situations in Afghanistan, Myanmar and rising food insecurity make it likely that displacement will become a central challenge to sustainable development in our region. But the words ‘Australia - Migration Policy - Refugees' don’t evoke warm and fuzzy thoughts about our policy history in this space.  

We ask the experts what’s on the cards for Australia’s future support to displacement.

Jane McAdam
Scientia Professor of Law, University of New South Wales

Disasters now cause almost three times as much internal displacement as conflict. As climate change amplifies the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, disasters will worsen and displacement will likely grow. Over the past decade, 80 per cent of the world’s disaster displacement occurred in the Asia-Pacific region.

Neither international law, nor the domestic laws of most countries, provide a clear-cut legal status to people displaced by the impacts of disasters, climate change or environmental degradation. Although refugee and human rights law may offer protection to some, it will not be an attainable or applicable solution for many. That is why it is essential for governments to anticipate and plan for such movement, including by ensuring that people at risk are not sent back to danger; by creating special humanitarian visas for those who are displaced; and by enhancing migration opportunities to enable people to move before disaster strikes. Considered, proactive responses have the best chance of ensuring that people can move in a safe, dignified and rights-respecting manner. Policies could include bilateral or regional free movement agreements, training programs that prepare individuals to find work abroad, or preferential access to labour, education or family visas.

Targeted policy interventions on disaster risk reduction, climate change adaptation, humanitarian protection, migration and planned relocation could reduce the risk and extent of future displacement linked to the impacts of disasters and climate change in the Asia-Pacific region. Working in tandem with affected communities, in a spirit of constructive collaboration and consultation, is key.

Jane might just be one of Australia’s best refugee lawyers. At the Lab, we particularly appreciate the way in which she takes her academic work from the ivory tower to the public square and uses it to engage in the national debate around refugee issues. The rate at which she publishes top-notch research and analysis makes our heads spin, frankly.

Adrian Edwards
Regional Representative - Australia, NZ and Pacific Island States, UNHCR

Australia helped forge the foundations of today’s international refugee system. It has a globally important resettlement programme providing a lifeline to thousands each year. It provides valuable funding for refugees in other countries and its cities contain examples of refugee settlement that are second to none. Nonetheless, think ‘refugees’ and ‘Australia’ and chances are a less tolerant picture comes to mind. ‘Offshore processing’, pushbacks, visa-restrictions, political tough-talk, detention (and Novak Djokovic) send tough signals, and not just for refugees.

There are better ways for Australia to manage borders and asylum without ‘losing control’ or risking damaged international prestige. Myanmar and Afghanistan – two of the major drivers of displacement in our region – are in grave crisis. Beyond the urgency of the need for political solutions, predictable and robust support for stretched refugee and humanitarian efforts is essential, including for stability. This is true in our region, and true elsewhere too. Australia’s recent shift towards an outward leaning international stance is some cause for hope.  

Closer to home, many of the countries in the immediate region around Australia are not signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. Without effective systems of asylum, safe possibilities of return, or pathways for refugees to get on with their lives, border management is a problem – and one that benefits the unscrupulous. In today’s environment of 100 million people forcibly displaced globally and worries about climate, Australia’s active support and advocacy for a region of strengthened asylum has never mattered more.

Adrian has built a career seeking to raise the public profile of some of the world’s most pressing humanitarian issues. Currently the UNHCR Representative to Australia, New Zealand and a host of Pacific Island States, he has previously served as the worldwide chief spokesperson for UNHCR and the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. At the Lab, we admire the way Adrian cuts through bureaucratese to get to the heart of the world’s crisis situations.

Patrick Wall
Consulting Analyst, Development Intelligence Lab

There is a lot more that Australia can and should be doing to support displaced people – and the countries and communities that host them – across our region:

• With global humanitarian needs at $48.7 billion USD this year – and less than one third of that amount having been raised – more financial support to humanitarian responses is crucial.

• Expanding the availability of resettlement and other pathways to safety in Australia – such as community sponsorship – will directly save the lives of some of the region's most vulnerable people.

Reforming our deliberately cruel asylum system will send a message to the region and the world about Australia's commitment to human rights and the rule of law.

Australia should also position itself as a constructive and trusted partner when it comes to refugee diplomacy.

Delicate and deliberate diplomatic engagement on issues of forced displacement is particularly important in our region, where relatively few countries are signatories to the Refugees Convention. The former government's approach, however, was driven by the politics of border control and a short-term view of the national interest; this led to boat turn-backs that irritated our neighbours, transactional 'deals' to outsource international obligations, and responding to calls for help with 'nope, nope, nope'.

In Australia's relative absence, a number of major diplomatic initiatives have been launched to address displacement challenges across the Asia-Pacific, such as the 'Support Platform' for Afghan refugees and the countries hosting large numbers of them. Similar initiatives are being explored to address the Rohingya displacement crisis.

Although Australians often overestimate the influence their nation wields in the region, forced displacement is an area in which Australia has something to offer. Reinvigorated refugee diplomacy represents an excellent opportunity to rebuild trust when it comes to addressing regional challenges – at a time of considerable geopolitical contestation in the region where non-transactional partnership is more important than ever – and to advocate for some of the region’s most vulnerable people.

Patrick has been a collaborator with the Lab since day dot. He is a legal and academic whiz and a much loved colleague of many with whom he has worked in the Pacific, Europe and beyond. At the Lab, we particularly enjoy the way Patrick brings his academic nous, policy experience and commonsense judgment to bear on complex issues. And we’re stoked to be able to watch Patrick grow into a versatile and formidable international affairs analyst.

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