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Questioning the Australian Refugee Model

Those looking to emulate Australia’s refugee system often ignore its resettlement program while touting the offshoring of asylum seekers. Maria O’Sullivan from the Castan Centre offers a more realistic assessment.

Written by Maria O’Sullivan Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Protesters heckle people attending a Liberal Party fundraiser in Sydney on November 10, 2017, as the protesters call on the ruling Liberal coalition government to bring back 600 refugees from an Australian detention center in Papua New Guinea.WILLIAM WEST/AFP/Getty Images

Australia is a land of plenty. It is large, wealthy and renowned for the friendliness of its people. Why, then, does it operate what is widely regarded as a harsh asylum policy? How does the Australian government justify its use of offshore processing and what does this mean for countries seeking to emulate the “Australian model”?

The first thing to say about these questions is that Australia is not alone in its approach to refugees. Industrialized countries across the world are increasingly seeking to block the flow of refugees. What is different about Australia is the emphasis placed on “resettlement” as the sole means by which refugees should seek asylum. Although it is possible for those arriving by plane to lawfully seek asylum, those who travel on boat are deemed “unlawful.” Such asylum seekers are penalized in various ways, namely by being sent to offshore processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

Criticism of the conditions in those centers is well-founded. However, this article does not seek to revisit these issues, but rather to explain some of the complexities of the Australian model and to discuss the less understood aspects of that system. My focus is on Australia’s resettlement program and the legal confusion caused by externalization of refugee protection.

The offshore processing system is not a stand-alone policy – it is closely linked to Australia’s resettlement system. Successive Australian governments have justified the offshore system by emphasizing that resettlement is the “proper” mode for claiming asylum as it ensures protection is given to those refugees who are most in need. As a result, the political discourse in Australia typically focuses on the presumption that there is a resettlement queue and that boat arrivals are taking places away from genuine refugees in overseas camps.

It is indeed true that Australia operates a successful, well-regarded resettlement program. Australia sets a yearly quota to take refugees directly from source countries, typically persons who have been assessed to be refugees by the U.N. refugee agency. This has historically been set at 13,750 per year, although the prime minister of Australia has pledged that this quota will increase to 18,750 by 2018–19. In addition to that number, the government granted an extra 12,000 humanitarian places to resettle refugees from Syria and Iraq from 2015–17 as a special measure.

There are undoubtedly significant advantages to operating a generous, well-run resettlement program. It appeals to those states wishing to maintain a level of control over those coming to their territory. It also benefits refugees in that resettled entrants are typically given a wide range of assistance measures to adapt to their new environment. For instance, refugees brought into Australia by way of resettlement are given support in relation to housing, language, physical and mental health, education and employment.

The catch is that this comes at a cost to those who do not apply through the formal resettlement system. This is reflected in an Australian policy called the “no advantage principle” – which became the centerpiece of the Australian refugee system in 2012. Under this no person who seeks to arrive by boat can gain an advantage over those awaiting resettlement in source regions. As a result, official Australian policy states that boat arrivals processed in the offshore centers will never obtain resettlement in Australia.

The ban on this form of resettlement in Australia creates a number of issues. First, the arrangements with Nauru and PNG were originally established to be processing centers. Now they are also operating as places of resettlement. This presents an important lesson for those seeking to emulate the Australian model as this has been the primary glitch in the offshore system. It is difficult and time-consuming to establish a processing center in a country with no history of asylum procedures. But it is almost impossible to expect recognized refugees to settle and make a life in those countries.

Second, one needs to look behind the claim that the Australian model is inherently successful. Despite the fact that the Australian model is held up as a success because it has “stopped the boats,” the true story is far more complex. The system is beset by high costs: Australia’s offshore immigration detention program has cost AU$5 billion ($3.9 billion) since 2012. Further, a class action lodged by asylum seekers and refugees detained on Manus Island was settled for AU$70 million ($55 million). Similar class actions have also been lodged and are before the courts.

The externalization of protection has also led to much confusion and litigation over who is legally responsible for the centers. The Australian government has repeatedly stated that it does not operate the centers. However, the PNG Supreme Court ruled otherwise in 2016. In an important judgement, the court ruled that the detention in the processing center was unconstitutional. Further, the court held that both PNG and Australia were jointly responsible for the center and called for Australia to comply with its ruling.

What does all this mean for countries seeking to emulate the Australian model? It means that other countries cannot seek to copy the offshore model without also operating a generous resettlement program. It also illustrates that those recognized as refugees must be given a settlement outcome and cannot be indefinitely warehoused offshore.

This has particular importance for Europe, given its plans to emulate aspects of the Australian system – for instance, the proposal to establish processing facilities funded by the E.U. in Libya, Niger and Chad. The problems I have discussed above demonstrate that it is very difficult to ensure that conditions and processes in these offshore locations are adequate. It leads to systemic problems with accountability, legal confusion and litigation.

Finally, the Australian experience illustrates that dealing with refugee flows is a complex issue requiring a nuanced, multifaceted approach, not one single, simple solution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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