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What Australia Needs To Bring To The UN Refugees Summit

Australia has a seat at the table, but what will we offer?

16/09/2016 5:11 PM AEST | Updated 19/09/2016 3:35 PM AEST
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"Australia must adopt a more principled and comprehensive strategy for regional and international engagement on refugees."

Displacement is a global challenge requiring collective international action. This is the imperative driving two historic international summits taking place this week in New York, which Australia will attend.

The first, a special meeting of the United Nations General Assembly on 19 September, will reaffirm key principles of international refugee law, and set in motion a process to develop a Global Compact on Refugees, including a framework for more predictable and comprehensive international responses to refugee flows. With displacement at an historic high and the vast majority of refugees hosted in developing states, the meeting calls for greater responsibility sharing, including increased support for refugee-hosting states.

The second meeting is an invitation-only Leaders' Summit on Refugees hosted by US President Barack Obama on 20 September. Australia has secured an invitation, ending months of speculation that it might be excluded from the event. In the wake of continued revelations of harm and abuse in offshore centres on Nauru and Manus, Australia's harsh asylum policies have attracted international criticism. In being offered a seat at the table, Australia appears to have avoided an embarrassing snub.

But the invitation comes with expectations. Only a small number of states are invited to attend the Leaders' Summit, and attendees must show 'new and significant commitments' to address the global refugee challenge. The summit will seek major pledges to expand humanitarian funding by 30 percent globally, double the number of resettlement and other refugee admission places, and ensure that in major refugee-hosting countries, a million more refugees have access to work, and another million have access to education.

It is not yet clear what Australia will bring to the table in New York. Our representatives will likely seek kudos for Australia's existing humanitarian funding, resettlement intake (despite recent criticism of its slow pace) and role as co-chair of the Bali Process, a regional forum created to address smuggling and transnational crime but showing signs of openness to refugee protection. But with more people displaced today than at any time since the Second World War, this is a time for stepping up, not self-congratulation.

Australia should heed to the call to commit additional funding to humanitarian and development assistance, and expand places in resettlement and other refugee admission schemes, ensuring that they are made available in a timely manner. The CEO of Save the Children Australia, Paul Ronalds, recently called on the government to double its humanitarian emergency fund for this financial year and commit a further $442 million to the UN Refugee Agency. The Refugee Council of Australia, Save the Children and UNICEF have called for an increase in Australia's humanitarian intake to 30,000 people per year over the next year or so. This is eminently feasible.

But these measures alone would not be sufficient to salvage Australia's international reputation when it comes to refugees.

Australia cannot credibly stand with world leaders in New York and claim to be a champion for refugee protection while maintaining its current suite of asylum policies. The government's deterrent approach is inimical to global responsibility sharing for refugee protection, and contrary to the very goal of the summits.

Excising Australian territory from the migration zone, sending refugees to languish offshore without prospects of a durable solution, and turning back boats at sea are lynchpins of Australia's current policy that shift, rather than share, responsibility for refugee protection. They do not represent a cooperative or sustainable approach, and are at odds with our obligations under international law.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reportedly intends to justify Australia's current policies in New York by claiming that it is strong 'border protection' that enables states to take humanitarian action on refugees. This spurious argument ignores the evidence that Australia's border security approach to refugees has antagonised our neighbours and undermined the conditions for refugee protection in the region.

Asia-Pacific countries have made it clear that they view Australia's policies of offshore processing and turning back boats as an abdication of responsibility. If Australia -- as a wealthy, democratic country that has voluntarily signed the Refugee Convention -- refuses to offer protection to those who seek it on our shores or in our waters, why should we expect any of our neighbours to do so?

A one-off announcement in New York of increased humanitarian spending or resettlement places would not be sufficient to undo the perception that Australia is undermining protection for refugees at our doorstep, and would not qualify as a satisfactory effort towards responsibility sharing. To be deserving of recognition at a gathering of leaders on refugees, Australia must adopt a more principled and comprehensive strategy for regional and international engagement on refugees.

Such a strategy must be based on a commitment to genuine responsibility sharing and aimed at expanding protection along the stages of displacement, through a coordinated approach across migration, aid and diplomatic channels. It would include increased humanitarian and development assistance to refugee-producing and refugee-hosting countries, to address the root causes of displacement and expand access to conditions of safety and dignity once people have had to flee. It would include engagement in international and regional efforts to produce more predictable and cooperative responses to displacement. But in order not to constitute attempts at containment or responsibility shifting, these efforts cannot be used as an excuse to refuse access to asylum on Australian shores.

Two reports launched this week, one by the Australian Human Rights Commission and another by Save the Children and UNICEF, articulate frameworks for a constructive Australian approach to refugee protection. The Australian Human Rights Commission's blueprint is based on the twin pillars of enhancing safe and legal pathways to protection in Australia, and good-faith efforts to build cooperation in the region, including through coordinated aid, diplomatic and humanitarian interventions to improve conditions for refugees.

Save the Children and UNICEF also call for increased regional engagement and resettlement, noting that Australia must commit to ending offshore processing and boat turnbacks if it is to restore its international and regional standing. These reports reinforce the growing recognition that alternative approaches to Australian refugee policy are both necessary and possible.

Australia's engagement in this week's summits offers an opportunity to reset our policy from one of deterrence to one of international cooperation. Australia can and should embrace its responsibility to expand refugee protection both at home and abroad. This is surely what the global challenge of displacement demands.

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