Date: 
Monday 26 September 2016

A short article by President Gillian Triggs about the recent report by the Commission on alternatives to offshore processing.

The recent high-level United Nations summit on refugees in New York has reignited debate about the best way to respond to the increasing number of people forced to leave their homes due to conflict, persecution and human rights violations.

World leaders adopted the historic New York Declaration, making a series of commitments to better protect the rights of people on the move.

The Australian Human Rights Commission welcomes Prime Minister Turnbull’s commitment to maintain our refugee intake at 18,750 from 2018 onwards. We also welcome Australia’s pledge to provide $130 million over the next three years to support global refugee programs.

Prime Minister Turnbull declared Australia’s border protection policy to be the “best in the world”, urging the international community to adopt the Australian model. He argues that the willingness of the Australia community to accept an increase in our refugee intake depends upon strong border protection.

At no time did the Prime Minister acknowledge the failure of his government to find viable, long-term settlement opportunities for refugees who continue to be held in dangerous and cruel conditions on the isolated islands of Manus and Nauru.
Hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers have now been in limbo for years, with no prospect of durable resettlement in Australia or elsewhere. Denying these men, women and children any certainty about their future continues to result in dire health outcomes.

Australia’s bipartisan support for the idea that border security necessitates this state of affairs has resulted in a political deadlock. Something has to give. To break this deadlock, the Australian Human Rights Commission has launched the Pathways to Protection Report. We propose some positive alternatives to offshore processing that are consistent with Australia’s international obligations and, indeed, with the spirit of the New York Declaration.

Pathways to Protection suggests two broad policy options to prevent dangerous sea journeys while ensuring refugees get the protection they need: expanding safe pathways to Australia through increasing resettlement and migration opportunities for refugees; and enhancing Australia’s foreign policy strategies on migration in the Asia-Pacific region.

Specific options include:

  • Increasing funding for humanitarian agencies, NGOs and community groups providing vital assistance to refugees
  • Using overseas aid more strategically to support displaced people
  • Building on regional initiatives, including through the Bali Process, to strengthen the region’s capacity to respond to displacement and flight by sea
  • Providing temporary visas to allow refugees to leave areas of danger
  • Exploring ways to open up skilled, family and study migration opportunities to refugees through offering waivers and concessions
  • Promoting the obligations to refugee children shared by all countries in the region as signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Commission does not underestimate the challenges that displacement poses for Australia and its neighbours. However, the over-arching concern of the Commission is that the current policy of offshore processing does not comply with our international human rights obligations.

Let us not forget that Australia seeks election to a seat on the UN’s Human Rights Council in 2018-20.

I hope the Pathways to Protection Report will contribute positively to the debate on improving responses to global displacement. I am confident that, with informed and respectful discussion, Australia will rise to the challenge of finding a humane response to those who seek our protection from conflict and persecution.