JRS calls for regional solution to refugee crisis
25 June, 2012Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Australia expresses its grief and sorrow over the most recent sinking of a boat in waters north of Christmas Island, with six asylum seekers confirmed dead, and up to 90 more presumed dead. This tragedy has taken place during International Refugee Week, a time to highlight the plight of refugees and asylum seekers the world over. A week that we hoped would focus on nurturing hope for refugees has instead become a time when they have been hunted down by death.
This is not the time to focus on the "evil of people smuggling", as some politicians have done in the wake of this tragedy in a bid to score political points. What is needed now is political leadership to craft a regional solution. Leaders need to take the necessary steps to protect asylum seekers in this region who are exercising their legal right to seek asylum and be considered for refugee status.
Asylum seekers get on boats because they are desperate and want to reach safe harbour in a place where they can find protection. Asylum seekers try to get to Australia, however perilous the journey, because it is the one country in the region where they believe they can get this protection.
This is not just an Australian problem: it is a regional refugee crisis. The countries north of Australia play host to far larger numbers of asylum seekers and refugees than the relatively small numbers that come to this country. A regional solution is needed for this regional crisis, and a fair and equitable solution will require burden-sharing across the region.
Tens of thousands of refugees in Malaysia wait for years to be resettled in third countries, and have few protections in that country during their wait. Is it any wonder that some take the decision to get on boats headed for Indonesia and then Australia? Australia's annual refugee intake of 13,750 could easily be increased, given that Australia took in almost 170,000 migrants in 2011.
Australia should also ramp up its ongoing efforts to persuade countries in the region to increase their protection spaces for refugees and asylum seekers. The human rights discourse in these countries is constantly evolving, and already in Malaysia there have been small but noticeable improvements in how refugees are treated. If asylum seekers experience security in countries of first refuge, they will be more likely to remain there while awaiting resettlement outcomes, and therefore less likely to make further perilous journeys in search of protection.