International Affairs Forum: What roles should NGOs and international groups perform in migration issues and policies, not only at an international level but regionally?
Dr. Claudia Tazreiter: NGOs have an important role in national, regional and international settings. Arguably this role is increasingly important and also fraught with the reality that states have been devolving a range of activities, services and functions for over two decades and hence also moving away from the historical pact between citizens/residents and the polity in which they live, work and seek to express and fulfill their lives. This devolution, sometimes called the neo-liberalization of the state, has meant that NGOs, both advocacy organizations and those more focused on service delivery, have an increasing role not only in less developed countries, but also in developed, post-industrial countries.
These developments mean that the roles NGOs play are not benign but need to be carefully evaluated in terms of values, outcomes and also the medium and long-term sustainability of the work that NGOs are doing and being asked to do in the absence of state action. Migration is one area of public policy where such developments are evident in local, regional and international settings.
Intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations continue to play key roles in both advocacy for policy development on migration issues including the rights and mobility of refugee populations as well in service delivery to refugees, displaced persons and other categories of migrants. However, the resources available to NGOs are often limited and much time is taken up applying for small pools of funding from governments and other funders and increasingly NGOs are turning to other forms of fund raising which take attention from their core work.
As refugee populations have increased by the end of 2015 to numbers not seen since the end of the Second World War, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the many NGOs that work alongside the UNHCR in refugee camps and in other settings have become overwhelmed with the human need they are faced with and the lack of adequate resources available to them. This resource crisis is one of the factors in the movement of large numbers of refugees from countries such as Turkey to Europe for example.
IA-Forum: Last year, Australia’s parliament approved changes to its immigration laws, including the reintroduction of temporary visas for refugees, permitting them to work in Australia for three to five years, but denying them permanent protection. What is your opinion of new policy changes in Australia?
Dr. Claudia Tazreiter:The laws introduced last year are regressive in that they differentiate between rights accorded to refugees as ‘on-shore’ and ‘off-shore’ arrivals (between asylum seekers and those already granted refugee status). These laws further confirm what politicians have long communicated to the Australian public in their rhetoric of asylum seekers as ‘queue jumpers’ and as less deserving of genuine protection.
This approach is politically motivated and goes against the spirit and the intention of International law on refugees codified in the 1951 Convention on Refugees as well as in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. States such as Australia that are signatories to the Refugee Convention are obliged to assess the protection claims of asylum seekers and to offer them reasonable support while such claims are being assessed.
What Australia has done is to pass its responsibilities for asylum seekers to poor neighboring countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru through off-shore processing and resettlement. Successive Australian governments have justified their harsh and punitive approach to asylum seekers by arguing that Australia is a generous nation when it comes to resettling refugees through the UNHCR resettlement program. Here, Australia sets aside a quota for refugee arrivals (around 13,000 per year over the past decade) as part of a yearly immigration program.
To be clear, accepting refugees for resettlement does not suspend a country’s obligation to assess the claims of asylum seekers arriving spontaneously and claiming protection. Looking to what has been occurring in the European Union (EU) over the past twelve months with the arrival of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, Australia’s approach would lead to a human catastrophe if the EU were to adopt Australia’s approach.
IA-Forum: There has been some criticism of Australia resettling refugees offshore to countries such as Papua New Guinea, that are ill-equipped to handle them. Do you think there is legitimacy to this?
Dr. Claudia Tazreiter: There are a number of contradictions and political problems that follow from Australia’s recent approach to the agreements with neighboring countries in processing and resettling refugee populations. Australia is a wealthy, liberal democratic society in the Asia Pacific region and has an important leadership role to play on issues of security - including human security - and the rule of law and stability. Neighboring countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia have been impacted by Australia’s approach of ‘stopping the boats’ under Operation Sovereign Borders since late 2013 with the result that asylum seekers in transit in those countries are now in a situation of semi-permanent transit while having few rights and protections as both Indonesia and Malaysia are not signatories to the Refugee Convention.
Indonesia in particular has taken a dim view of the Australian Government’s approach of boat push-backs whereby small vessels attempting to take asylum seekers to Australia have been intercepted on the high seas by the Australian navy and turned back to Indonesia. Such developments, as well as the offshore processing and resettlement of refugees to Papua New Guinea and Nauru through payments made to those countries by the Australian Government, have a negative effect on building a robust regional framework toward irregular migration and related issues of national and human security.
Read this rest of the interview and more in the latest issue of International Affairs Forum, focusing on migration and statelessness, by clicking HERE.