Review: “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders” by Peter Hughes and Arja Keski-Nummi

In May, the Centre for Policy Development, partnered with Australia21 and the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, coordinated a report called “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders: A Long-term Asylum Policy for Australia“. This was a discussion paper for roundtable discussions held in July.

It is without a doubt, the best policy document I have seen in response to Operation Sovereign Borders.

Authored by Peter Hughes (former Deputy Secretary of DIAC) and Arja Keski-Nummi (former First Assistant Secretary of DIAC), this document is pragmatic, grounded in fact and presents a sustainable asylum policy where one can imagine bipartisan support. This won’t occur tomorrow. But the ideas and concepts at the heart of this document show a viable pathway forward for the political class.

The paper tackles two issues.

The immediate concern is of people in detention, both in Australian and offshore. The authors say a time-frame is required for decisions on visa applications to force a more responsive system. The old 90 day rule from 2005 is considered. This is maybe one of the only proven methods of pushing the massive bureaucracy towards constant movement on protection visa applications. Given the caseload currently in Australia, the authors say a goal of June 2017 should be considered to clear the backlogue of cases.

In an obvious effort to move the needle on the 30,000+ asylum seekers in Australia and offshore, the authors find Temporary Protection Visas may be appropriate despite their lack of deterrence, as long as a determination is made on the claims of asylum. Paragraph 30:

“UNHCR acknowledges that, at times, temporary protection may be the most appropriate arrangement. For example, in circumstances where there are mass influxes (generally involving larger numbers than experienced by Australia), temporary protection may be a valid tool in ensuring protection is available for asylum seekers while allowing authorities the breathing space to more fully examine and determine the need for a permanent protection and stay in a country at a later stage.”

With regard to those people on Nauru and Manus, the authors are less forgiving. All cases should be complete by June 2015. Given the lack of progress in both countries, this is highly unlikely to occur despite the conditions of detention. The authors hint at more resources from Australia but part of the deterrence is the process.

The authors come out strongly on work rights and community living. This is not just two lefties banging on about their pet issue. This reflects decades of executive experience at the Department of Immigration and the understanding that particularly punitive measures such as restricting work and mandatory detention simply do not work as a deterrence. The cost of detention is raised, with people on bridging visas equal to 20 per cent the cost of detention, while community detention is about 50 per cent (paragraph 78). This cost savings are massive when we consider the total cost of detention, approximately equal to funding the NDIS.

The options regarding those detained offshore are much more limited. There are real constraints on Australian government action for those already in Nauru and PNG. This is reflected in the questions and options raised. This is the sad reality, limiting the ability to even consider a broader range of options in offshore detention centres.

Questions of scale when working with third-countries are raised. To me, this paragraph (92) raises some very important contextual information which I had not considered before:

“It is unlikely that either PNG or Nauru has the capacity to locally integrate many more than the current number of people in the detention centres there, particularly if a high proportion of them are recognized as refugees. Given the size of their local populations, these numbers alone would put them in the top 10 resettlement countries globally, comparable to European resettlement countries and New Zealand.”

However the authors highlight the positive also. There is an opportunity for both Nauru and PNG – with significant assistance from Australia – in attempting resettlement. A concern I would have is that any large package of resettlement assistance will contrast with the opportunity for local citizens, something that does not occur in Australia. This has the very real potential to undermine the concept of resettlement as we understand it in Australia.

Returning failed asylum seeker applicants is a critical part of the system. The authors reflect on some “known knowns” however do not acknowledge some well-known issues. Iranian asylum seekers are particularly difficult. Returnees to Syria may work on occasion as we have seen in the past fortnight but attempting to return more than a handful may prove extremely difficult. The question of what happens to failed asylum applicants in many countries – including Sri Lanka – is a difficult one to engage with.

The second issue considered by the paper is a future policy to replace Operation Sovereign Borders.

The most important piece of context that asylum flows are likely to increase over time (paragraph 121, p.31). Demand for migration to the developed world, via asylum or other considerations, is growing and supply is drying up. Where legal avenues close, others open. Given Australia cannot change global migration trends and increasing flows, we can either engage or ignore them.

The key points for a future asylum policy are: integrating a refugee policy into broader policy considerations and working with our region instead of unilaterally. This is based on the long-term goal of near universal ratification of the refugees convention, a medium-term goal of a regional initiative on force migration (suggested with ASEAN working through a deliberate framework to neutralise the politics) and a short-term goal of building on existing institutions, such as the Bali Process. The long-term goal is acknowledged as unlikely given the current strategic environment and the lack of any catalyst to change this.

These goals are not sexy. The work needed to meet them  will not appear on the front pages. But together they generate the most likely opportunity for a long-term outcome which meets the bipartisan consensus on asylum movements. The proposals are pragmatic. They can adapt and appeal to a range of people and interested groups.

Obviously, there is much work to do to achieve these outcomes. With resources – time and money – being spent elsewhere, this is not a blueprint for the next 12 months or for this government. However it is a clearly laid out plan with discrete steps towards outcomes based on historical realities. There is more explanation of what is required from paragraphs 120-168.

This proposal shows why any plan for Cambodia would be a failure. I was wrong back in May when I wrote how we should keep open minds about new proposals. Perhaps one day Cambodia will be a suitable society to resettle refugees but that day is not today. The fundamentals for regional cooperation are not in place: cooperation with Indonesia and Malaysia. This prevents any possible success when working with countries with a much reduced capacity to assist. Instead, we would see more cases of mistreatment and an inability of countries to manage asylum claims and resettlement to a standard we should accept.

There is so much uncertainty in this policy. Those who are the most confident make rash decisions and are ill-prepared to consider a broader perspective. This is Hughes and Keski-Nummi’s most important contribution. Drawing on their decades of experience, they help guide the way for the next generation of decision-makers, advocates, policy wonks and those who are genuinely interested in advancing the cause of those who seek asylum.

Perhaps as important is the fact this proposal – with the concept of regional cooperation at its core – is sponsored and coordinated by the Centre for Policy Development, one of a handful of progressive think-tanks in Australia. Tacit endorsement from the CPD will allow those of us in progressive politics a better avenue for discussion with those who have long opposed such measures mooted within this document.

Some might look at asylum policy now and think anyone who believes positive change can occur is dreaming. Yet Hughes and Keski-Nummi have laid a credible path towards a better policy, an extremely difficult thing to achieve in the current debate.

One thought on “Review: “Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders” by Peter Hughes and Arja Keski-Nummi

  1. But we don’t have a mass influx, we have a government that refuses to assess claims. Why do so many people want to make such a racist meal out of the whole issue.

    The refugee convention rules are not onerous, simply abide by them and we will all be better off. and Arja is still a creature of the control freak department.

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