On Monday in New York, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Global Compact on Refugees – a new agreement reinforcing the importance of refugee protection and the need for better global cooperation to ensure it. Australia was among the states that signed it. This may come as a surprise, given the Australian government’s rejection of the sister agreement on migration, and its ongoing determination to prevent asylum seekers caught in its offshore processing regime on Manus Island and Nauru from traveling to Australia, even for urgent medical care.
The Global Compact on Refugees calls on the world’s governments to do more to ease conditions in those countries that host the majority of the world’s refugees. Of the 25 million refugees currently displaced around the world, most are sheltering in developing countries. In 2017, Turkey, Pakistan and Uganda hosted more than 1 million refugees each. To put this in perspective, this is more than the total number of refugees Australia has received since World War II.
But when it comes to alleviating the pressure on countries assisting large numbers of refugees, major resettlement countries such as Australia are well placed to help. The country’s annual humanitarian resettlement program aspires to achieve the same outcomes as the refugee compact: sharing international responsibility and protecting the world’s most vulnerable refugees.
In fact, one practical way to achieve these outcomes can be found in Australia’s recent past.
Shortly before Christmas three years ago, the federal government flew dozens of Syrian refugee families to Australia. They were the first of 12,000 Syrians and Iraqis who were resettled in Australia under a “special humanitarian intake,” a one-off measure that went over and above Australia’s annual resettlement quota for people in need of protection (which was 13,750 in 2015, and is now 18,750). It was announced by the Abbott government in 2015 following intense international and domestic pressure to aid refugees fleeing conflict in Syria and Iraq, and amid similar responses from a number of other countries. The special intake saved lives and was widely welcomed by the Australian community.
The special refugee intake of Syrians and Iraqis provides one example of how countries such as Australia can help ease the burden on “front-line” countries and share the global responsibility to protect refugees. Resettling more refugees from large-scale emergencies helps to improve conditions for those left behind, by freeing up resources and creating opportunities for refugees to integrate locally. It also helps the communities hosting large numbers of refugees to better respond to everyone else.
Sadly, we know this won’t be the last time that urgent responses will be needed for large flows of refugees. Indeed, last year the U.N. refugee agency issued an appeal to the international community for an additional 40,000 resettlement places for refugees traveling through the Central Mediterranean. In the Asia-Pacific, there are currently nearly 1 million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in desperate need of solutions. What role could, or should, countries such as Australia play in responding to these other groups of refugees in need of protection?
With so many people in need, the special treatment of one group of refugees could be viewed as unfair or even discriminatory. Our new policy brief for the University of New South Wales’ Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law recommends that special humanitarian intakes be based on clear criteria that are applied consistently. Principles of international solidarity and responsibility sharing, and the need to provide protection and solutions for the most vulnerable refugees, must guide not only the decision to offer such an intake but also the way in which it is implemented. This will ensure that special humanitarian intakes are not driven purely by politics or by the perceived desirability of any particular group of refugees. The best outcomes arise when resettlement is fair and transparent, especially for the refugees concerned.
Planning for future special intakes is essential, rather than scrambling to find solutions once people are already on the move. A principled approach requires governments to be proactive, rather than waiting until the next newsworthy crisis erupts. Setting out key criteria for special intakes, and establishing some basic mechanisms for how they will work, can create efficiency and safeguard humanitarian programs against the political whims of the day.
As a supporter of the Refugee Compact, Australia has committed to working with other countries to find innovative ways to protect refugees and ease the pressures on front-line countries. Like other states, Australia will be required to report regularly on the steps it has taken to meet its objectives. Establishing clear criteria and basic procedures for future special intakes is one practical step Australia could take to demonstrate its genuine commitment to this process.
One-off, special intakes of refugees fleeing crises such as the war in Syria do not replace Australia’s obligations to refugees who arrive here seeking protection. The humanitarian treatment of refugees and asylum seekers – including those held on Manus Island and Nauru – remains a critical priority area for improvement. Nevertheless, as a global leader in refugee resettlement, Australia could play a prominent role in promoting special intakes as a tangible expression of international solidarity, and a way to share more fairly our common responsibility for people who need refuge and protection.
The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.
Tamara Wood and Claire Higgins are researchers with the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW Sydney.