The heightened level of activism and support for refugees in Australia which we have seen in recent months has meant, according to one Canberra report, a swing towards the pro-refugee view of 15%. With the conservative rump of Australian politics a longstanding deadweight on change, and the ‘turning back boats’ view being 71% in the Lowy poll around the last federal election, it’s unclear if this can be sustained.

Support for what might be called the values approach can and should be supplemented by a strategic policy approach, which works purposefully with other states in the regional ‘commons’ of the Asia Pacific region, and aspires to ameliorate and change the parameters which cruel so many lives, because hundreds of thousands of people have been in ‘temporary’ camps in Thailand and Malaysia for up to twenty years. On the international refugee crisis, the long-time observer and journalist Michael Gordon wrote recently, ‘Part of the problem in this space has been that it’s been relatively empty in terms of policy and very crowded in terms of advocacy.’ Increasing the numbers of Australian voters who see a realistic way forward diminishes the numbers of those whose rejection of an effective response sends them into cohabitation with the conservative rump.

The three traditional types of refugee solutions have been voluntary repatriation to the home country, resettlement to a third country, or integration into the host country. However, the first option has become less available due to protracted conflicts; re the second, in 2014 only 1% of refugees in our region (30,661 of the 3.94 million refugees between Iran and Indonesia) were resettled through the UNHCR (UN High Commission for Refugees) process, and the third option, local integration, is usually politically sensitive and unpopular.

There has been some debate within the UNHCR about how to move from emergency services to ‘durable solutions’ which reduce refugee numbers. This means less rigid categorisation of source, transit and destination countries for refugees, and exploring ways to make the current living space more tolerable – with better work, education, medical care, civil and mobility rights – which will diminish some of the momentum to find another, better destination.

One of the ways in which knowledge, experience and rational process come together is through the depoliticised Track 2 Dialogue (outside the official Track 1 process) in our region. These are periodic get-togethers of NGO and government specialists, academics, commentators and ‘influencers’, selected for their ability to contribute and who take off their official hat, so are free to speak on a Chatham House (unattributed) basis about innovations, perspectives and visions, for example on refugees organising themselves, capacity building in camps, and ‘root causes’ such as lesser human rights of the many people now regarded as ‘stateless’.

What these meetings – outside the government process – promote is international collaboration, deeper regional perspectives and greater trust and commitment. In Australia they are promoted by civil society organisations such as the Centre for Policy Development, former public service leader John Menadue, as well as most of the refugee organisations, e.g. Refugee Council of Australia and Act for Peace (Vic Council of Churches). Internationally, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network, Solutions Alliance, UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration are supporters (without institutional representatives.) Their websites are worth looking at.

Clearly Australia’s limited support for implementing its own treaty obligations does not create goodwill or reciprocation of a regional mindset from our neighbours. A regional protection and resettlement framework is a higher aspiration than the unilateralism we have now, because we have set the bar so low, based on domestic political benefits. For example, an Australian contribution to the regional response would mean closing Australia’s expensive Manus Island and Nauru facilities which only hold about 1,400 people, and putting the billions saved into improving the existing SE Asian camps, and expanding significantly our humanitarian intake.

In 2012 Malcolm Fraser talked of how playing ‘to baser instincts rather than Australian’s better nature’ was the low-risk approach to policy.

These insiders canvassing outsider perspectives are planting the seeds for a better future.

Kevin Bain

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