In February this year I attended the Refugee Alternatives Conference held in Sydney and sponsored by the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA). One of the Highlights of the conference was the keynote address delivered Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission.
She began by stating that the plight of the world’s 65 million refugees was one of the greatest human rights challenges we face. At a number of times during her speech she referred to a report released by the Human Rights Commission in September 2016 entitled “Pathways to Protection: A human rights-based response to the flight of asylum seekers by sea.’
Gillian Triggs shared that as President of the Human Rights Commission she is often asked the alternatives to offshore processing by people who know that what is happening on Manus Island and Nauru is wrong. In early 2016 the Human Rights Commission initiated a research project to canvass possible alternatives to third country processing in Nauru and Manus Island. The aim of the project was to identify options for responding to flight by sea which are consistent with Australia’s international human rights obligations. The project employed a human-rights based approach to policy development.
“Pathways to Protection” is the report of this project and its findings are essential reading for those of us seeking to change public opinion in Australia on this contentious issue. The report is based on a series of consultations with people with expertise in the areas or refugee policy, human rights, international law and protection issues in the Asia-Pacific region.
(Photo: Australian Human Rights Commission)
The summary of findings begins by making clear that the key driver of flight by sea towards Australia is the lack of effective protection for refugees and people seeking asylum in the Asia Pacific region. Once this is accepted then improving access to effective protection is the most effective and sustainable means of preventing flight by sea. This can only be achieved through cooperation and partnership with our regional neighbours.
Two core principles emerged from the research and consultation process which guided the Commission in identifying alternative options were:
- The top priority of an alternative response should be enhancing protection for people fleeing persecution, in accordance with our international human rights obligations.
- The focus of Australia’s policy response should shift from deterrence to prevention. Rather than seeking simply to discourage asylum seekers from embarking on dangerous journeys, an alternative response should aim to address the human rights violations which compel people undertake these journeys in the first place.
The report identifies two key obstacles that hamper Australia’s efforts to improve access to protection:
- There are few effective mechanisms for cooperation on refugee protection issues among states in the Asia-Pacific region
- There are limited opportunities for safe entry for people wishing to seek safe protection in Australia.
In the report a number of options are proposed that address the key driver of flight by sea through creating and enhancing pathways to protection. They seek to achieve this by facilitating access to safe migration options, improving protection for refugees and people seeking asylum who are living in the region, and building to more effective regional responses to refugee protection issues.
In September 2016 this report was released. Later that month Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull addressed the United Nations sponsored summit on refugees in New York that was hosted by US President Obama.
In this speech Prime Minister Turnbull committed to maintain Australia’s refugee intake at 18,750 from 2018 onwards, and pledged to provide $130 million over the next three years to support global refugee programs.
Malcolm Turnbull should have stopped while he was ahead because he then went on to declare Australia’s border protection policy to be the “best in the world” and urged the international community to adopt the Australian model.
Professor Gillian Triggs had this to say about Turnbull’s address:
“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.”(Pathways to Protection)
It is a tragic state of affairs that both the Government and ALP opposition are so intent on preserving the status quo that they are ignoring a report that shows us a pathway out of this human rights disaster that is continuing to destroy the lives of people who have come to us for protection.
The government has gone one step further – in November last year Malcolm Turnbull took the extraordinary step of declaring that the Government would not be renewing Gillian Triggs’ contact when it expires in July this year. Such is the cost of speaking the truth to a government who are quite happy to trample on the human rights of vulnerable people.
“Tell him he’s dreamin'” – the doubtless response if Dale Kerrigan from the Castle had been in Turnbull’s New York audience.