Intercepting Boat Arrivals: What the Australian Policy Model Means for Canadian Asylum Policy

Author: Heather Johnson

en Agenda Canada-Asie   (6 pages)

Abstract:

The arrival of Sri Lankan asylum seekers on MV Sun Sea in August 2010 has prompted intense public debate about the effectiveness and appropriateness of Canada’s asylum seeker determination system. In drawing parallels with the Australian experience, Canadian policymakers have been eyeing Australia's evolving migration and border control policies as a possible model for Canada. Is it the right model for Canada? The piece explores Australia’s shifting patterns of control and responsibility in migration policy and the implications for Canada.

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Average: 4 (14 votes)

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Johnson's article is an important interruption to the trajectory of Canadian refugee policy which seems bent on essentializing refugees and other migrants as line-jumpers which totally misses the point that they are escaping violence in their home countries. Writing up Canada's new laws as one emphasizing "human smugglers" moralizes the discourse - who could possibly argue against penalizing human smugglers?? Johnson shows that this is more of a rhetorical tactic than anything else. The spectacle of a boat-load of people is nothing new to Canada, but it has often been met with racist essentializing in the past, and today, moral posturing about the "right" way to be a refugee in Canada. Perhaps the reason why Vietnamese boat-people were welcomed and Tamils/Punjabis are not is because accepting Vietnamese boatpeople suited the ideological imperatives of the Canadian state at the time. Today, Sri Lanka is a "democracy" that has been the first to claim victory in the "global war on terror." How, the government may ask, is it possible for citizens of a country that has elections to be "real" refugees? Should Tamil refugees patiently wait in state internment camps in Northeastern Sri Lanka for another few years before trying to escape to sanctuary in Canada - a state that is already one of the biggest sources of the Tamil Diaspora? By focusing on "multilateral security harmonization" with Thai officials, it seems Canada is willing to work with other governments to ensure that asylum seekers are sent back to the internment camps. Refugees and immigrants are often blamed for "bringing their problems" to Canada, as if crossing the border into this (stolen native) land is like a baptism where the immigrant Other is expected to be born-again. Thanks for the article!Johnson's article is an important interruption to the trajectory of Canadian refugee policy which seems bent on essentializing refugees and other migrants as line-jumpers which totally misses the point that they are escaping violence in their home countries. Writing up Canada's new laws as one emphasizing "human smugglers" mor...more
Heather Johnson's article is factually incorrect in a number of instances and it would appear that she is not familiar with the details of our legislation and current government policy. It is wrong to suggest Australia “delegitimises” asylum claims and “criminalises” asylum seekers. Yes, Australia is committed to strong border control, as a legitimate policy tool to ensure the integrity of Australia’s migration programs. But, like Canada, Australia is also a signatory to the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention and like Canada, we take our international obligations seriously. We ensure asylum seekers arriving in Australian territory have their claims objectively, thoroughly and independently assessed in accordance with the convention and are provided protection where they are assessed as being in need. Australia has a proven and proud record of sharing responsibility for protecting refugees worldwide and resolving refugee situations. Contrary to Ms Johnson’s contention that Australia’s annual quota for refugee resettlement has remained at about 12,000 for the past decade, our refugee and humanitarian resettlement program has increased over a number of years. Australia resettled 13 770 people under this program in 2009-10 (July 1-June 30) and will resettle a similar number under the program in 2010-11. In its observations of Australia’s policies and approach to irregular migration, the paper does not seem to analyse the nature of irregular movement within the Asia-Pacific region. Movement within the region includes asylum seekers in first flight and secondary movement, and travelling in mixed flows with economic migrants. The reasons for movement are complex and varied. Conflict, political instability, personal insecurity, human rights violations and economic factors all push people to seek a safe and better life. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement in July 2010 of a proposal to develop a regional protection framework (RPF) is one of a number of policy responses to the issue of irregular migration. Ms Johnson argues that Prime Minister Gillard’s announcement revitalises aspects of the "Pacific Solution" (sic); this is incorrect. Building a sustainable RPF that includes a comprehensive approach to the management of irregular migration is the most effective way to break the people smuggling model and remove the incentive for people to undertake dangerous sea voyages to Australia. In contrast to the Pacific Strategy, the foundation of such a framework is that people making an asylum claim in the region have their claims fairly and consistently assessed in line with the Refugee Convention (including potentially at a regional assessment centre) and are provided with an appropriate long-term outcome. Australia is not alone in contending that a framework for regional cooperation is the most effective way to address irregular migration. Regional responses to irregular migration are generally accepted to offer benefits in increasing burden-sharing, improving consistency in the treatment of refugees and supporting access to refugee determination processes to deliver durable solutions to individuals found to be owed protection. The proposal for an RPF builds on the existing positive and productive cooperation between Australia and regional partners, as well as cooperation among the Five Country Conference members of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom who share information and policy initiatives in this forum on migration and border security. This cooperation goes well beyond the paper's claim that little has been achieved “beyond enhanced information-sharing”. Australia is also a member of the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime, which we co-chair with the Indonesian Government. We undertake a range of capacity-building activities to assist regional partners in developing border systems and migration processes, and engage in practical cooperation with our regional partners through a number of bilateral working groups. In particular, Indonesia is an important and valued partner for Australia in addressing the challenge of irregular migration in our region and we are unaware of any frequent expression of frustration or anger suggesting it is being treated like a “trash bin”. The statement that a regional cooperation agreement has been signed between Australia and Indonesia is not correct. However, Australia does support the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia to provide all irregular migrants intercepted enroute to Australia with basic accommodation, food and emergency medical assistance, as well as information and counselling about their migration options. This support is provided to ensure that Indonesia is not left with the burden of hosting populations of irregular migrants and delivers essential humanitarian assistance to a large number of displaced people. Ms Johnson implies that Australia’s approach to building a sustainable regional approach to managing irregular migration, while ensuring that asylum seekers are treated humanely and fairly, is not appropriate. Our position is that the status quo, under which people smugglers determine who gets protection and where, and requires asylum seekers to undertake dangerous journeys by sea, is not appropriate.Heather Johnson's article is factually incorrect in a number of instances and it would appear that she is not familiar with the details of our legislation and current government policy. It is wrong to suggest Australia “delegitimises” asylum claims and “criminalises” asylum seekers. Yes, Australia is committed to str...more
This article makes clear why governments so often find academic forays into areas of public policy an unhelpful exercise and can therefore be disregarded. In Johnson's opinion the Australian control measures undermine the international refugee regime. I could not disagree more. Without control measures of various kinds the international refugee regime would have collapsed. I do not say this lightly but base it on more than 30 years work in the area with the Canadian government (as Director General, Refugees) and internationally (as Coordinator, Intergovernmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Geneva). The lack of attention and interest by academics, including Johnson, in the abuse of refugee determination is striking. Internationally, asylum seeker flows are in reality migration flows. This is made clear by the an approval rate of around 20% (much lower in many European countries but twice as high in Canada). The inability of governments to return rejected asylum seekers to their countries (for reasons too complex to go into here) means that they stay whatever their status. Therefore, making asylum claims ensure they can stay and have the better life they want. The problem is that governments claim as their sovereign right under international law the determination of who is accepted as immigrants. This is the case whether the decision is to have no immigrants (the case for most of Europe in the postwar era) or to have immigrants (as in Australia, Canada and the US). So, hardly surprising, governments take measures to counter that part of the asylum flow that is economic in motivation. Because the distinction between refugee and migrant is hard to make there is no doubt that real refugees are hurt by control measures. Similarly, the increasing effectiveness of control policies raises the stakes and invites smugglers to provide their professionalism to those wanting to migrate and at a high cost. Since the commencement of large asylum seeker flows dominated by economic migrants in the late 1980s governments have put in place numerous control measures. When real refugees arrived in large numbers, as in Europe during the Yugoslav civil war, temporary protection was provided. Without these control measures the political parties that opposed abuse would have received even more support than they did and more mainline parties would have lost more support (as in West Germany in the early 1990s). In my opinion the tragedy of the other day when many boat arrivals destined to Australia drowned off Christmas Island could have been prevented had the Australian Government maintained its tough control policy and not let the smugglers and their cargo believe their journey would end in success. What Johnson fails to say is that the Australian approach is not at all in violation of its obligations as a signatory of the Geneva refugee convention. Australia ensures that no asylum seeker is denied the right to make a claim and if found to be a refugee is not returned to the country that he or she fled. The UNHCR, while hating what Australia does, does not make the claim that Australia is in violation of its obligation not to refoule refugees. A specific point regarding Canada. Johnson argues that Canada's treatment of the boat arrivals in recent decades is at odds with how we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and is indicative of a more anti-refugee mood. It is indicative of nothing of the sort. The Vietnamese fitted within Canada's traditional refugee resettlement programs, programs still in place and only recently expanded. Boat arrivals on our shore do not and symbolize for the public unease with illegal migration, not legal migration (as public opinion polling makes clear). The author does not appear to worry about the distinction between migrant and refugee as long as the latter is safeguarded as she wishes. Governments do not have that luxury. Pursuing a no-control approach would result in the end of the Geneva Convention, a most unwelcome result.This article makes clear why governments so often find academic forays into areas of public policy an unhelpful exercise and can therefore be disregarded. In Johnson's opinion the Australian control measures undermine the international refugee regime. I could not disagree more. Without control measures of various kinds the in...more
My comments on the Australian model are based in seven years of research both here and in Australia itself, which has included detailed interviews with several advocates, policy makers, migrants and workers in international and national organizations, including the UNCHR and the IOM. I am also far from alone in arguing that the system delegitimizes and criminalizes unauthorized arrivals. I have made no claim that Australia does not hear asylum claims as required under the 1951 Convention. Rather, my argument is that by applying different (and more restrictive) policies to individuals based upon mode of arrival and means of travel, a two-tiered system has been created that undermines the right to make onshore asylum claims. Terming unauthorized arrivals as "illegal migrants" and subjecting them to often years-long detention criminalizes these migrants in the eyes of the public; limited rights to appeal and review, different rights to social assistance, permanent status visas, and family reunion has the same effect, creating the impression that somehow these migrants are not legitimate asylum seekers because they made onshore claims rather than waiting to participate in the resettlement program. Further, practices of interception and interdiction, including those under the cooperation agreement with Indonesia, have been frequently challenged by individual advocates in Australia and international organizations, including the UNHCR, as possibly deflecting protection responsibilities. The core of my argument is that the current Australian approach to building regional partnerships in migration management does not, in practice, treat asylum seekers fairly or humanely. Neither is such an approach demonstrably effective in reducing the number of boat arrivals. Rather, a system built upon norms of prevention and deterrence that places greater emphasis on border security than on access to protection is driving migrants to engage in ever-riskier practices to reach Australia. A system where onshore claims were not subject to punishment, detention and limited rights, where those attempting to reach a country of asylum were not consistently intercepted and returned to a third country is worth examining. The often tragic reality is that, even under the current system that attempts to stop them, boats continue to attempt the dangerous journey to Australian shores. The same is true of the Mediterranean Sea as migrants attempt to reach Spain and Italy, and appears to be becoming true of Canadian shores. Not all boats arrive safely. Last week, a boat reportedly carrying 70 asylum seekers crashed off the coast of Christmas Island and many were drowned. This is an event that no one wishes to see, and similar events must be stopped. Our current global approach of deterrence and prevention is not doing the job, and is only driving migrants to greater risk in smuggling operations to evade restrictive border controls and access asylum systems that seem out of reach. We have tried closure. It is not working. Surely another approach, based on openness and the preservation of international responsibilities, is worth exploring.My comments on the Australian model are based in seven years of research both here and in Australia itself, which has included detailed interviews with several advocates, policy makers, migrants and workers in international and national organizations, including the UNCHR and the IOM. I am also far from alone in arguing that the...more