Carrots and Sticks can solve the refugee debate

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In 2011 I called for a change. I said that it was time to hit the reset button on the refugee debate, take a bipartisan approach to asylum, and resurrect Australia’s brand image.

Carrots and Sticks can solve the debate.

The business community of Melbourne, deeply concerned about the brand image of Melbourne, Victoria and Australia, calls upon politicians of all sides to reconsider the debate on asylum and to create a mix of policy carrots and sticks to genuinely address the regional asylum problem.

Politicians from all sides enter the debate should hold with the best long term interests of Australia in mind, not their partisan short term interests.

I recently suggested  a policy that offers the right mix of carrots and sticks, and suggested a framework for a regional negotiation that enhances Australia’s reputation (see here). It is a policy that does the following:

1.      One, improves the conditions for asylum seekers – both those who arrive and those who are waiting in legitimate processing centres off-shore.
2.      Two, satisfies the reasonable concerns around protection of Australian boarders.
3.      Three, enhances not detracts from Australia’s reputation.

Above all it improves seeks to move the debate from Ignorant and Fearful to Informed and Hopeful. it hopes to maximise Australia’s opportunity to be the hinge, not the cringe.

Regional Asylum policy suggestion

Policy Philosophy:
Asylum policy must be designed to enhance not detract from Australia’s reputation, and contain within it the carrots and sticks necessary for an orderly and humane treatment of asylum seekers.
Any policy must respect the sanctity of the Refugee Convention which is to provide protection from a well founded fear of persecution, but not to be a de-facto mechanism for immigration.
Whatever policy follows on from the recent parliamentary stalemate, it should have three objectives.
One, improve the conditions for asylum seekers – both those who arrive and those who are waiting in legitimate processing centres off-shore.
Two, satisfy the reasonable concerns around protection of Australian boarders.
Three, enhance not detract from Australia’s reputation.
The correct forum for the policy debate:
The asylum issue is a regional issue and therefore must be solved regionally. Currently the regional burden is being handled mainly by Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia currently has over 200,000 refugees, asylum seekers and ‘persons of concern’ listed by UNHCR, Australia has only 25,000. Australia needs to step up to the plate, take a fair share and need to do so from a regional perspective.
The Bali Process, and the Regional Cooperation Framework it created, is a good start to regionally discuss the plethora of complicated issues from trafficking, to law enforcement and durable solutions for asylum seekers. This forum could be used more to search for lasting solutions on resettlement and those resettlement issues should be the main focus of Australia’s involvement, not location of processing.
The key driver of people smuggling:
Currently in Indonesia and Malaysia, once a refugee is assessed as genuine, and they pass through health and security checks, the still have to wait for many years for resettlement. If people have passed through health and security checks, and been assessed as a genuine refugee, why should they wait? This long wait causes a perception that there is no legitimate and genuine path to resettlement, hence people take the desperate act of getting on boats.
The deep flaw in the current asylum debate is that it is focussed on only one aspect: Processing. The location of processing – Australia, Malaysia or Nauru – is the wrong issue. The lack of rapid Refugee resettlement post processing in whatever location, not refugee processing itself, is the driver of the people smugglers trade. Speedy resettlement must therefore be the focus of regional response.
If there is a legitimate and speedy path to resettlement and stop the current long delays in resettlement post processing, we stop the market. If we stop the market, we stop the boats. If we stop the boats, we stop the deaths.
Policy Carrots and Sticks.
a.    Carrots.
Giving a realistic route to resettlement is the key to stopping the boats. Policy drivers must stop people hopping on boats in the first place. Turning boats around is too late.
The alternative path:
A regional treaty should be negotiated that would define an asylum seeker as ‘arrived in the region’ when they land in the county of first arrival by whatever means, land sea or boat – most often Malaysia or Indonesia. Each regional country should agree to bear a fixed percentage of the burden of refugees, with this burden including:
·                   a percentage of the cost share of processing
·                   a cost share of repatriation of non genuine asylum seekers, and
·                   a fixed percentage of automatic acceptances and immediate resettlement of genuinely assessed refugees.
Asylum seekers would be assessed in country of first arrival with health and security checks undertaken as part of refugee assessment overseen by UNHCR in the country of arrival. If accepted as genuine refugees these people should be resettled immediately to whichever of the regional countries is under-quota on refugee acceptances with appropriate visas so allow work, education and genuine resettlement.
Refugees would not choose which country they are resettled in. They would be resettled in whichever country is next in line to accept refugees according to the resettlement percentages.
b.     Sticks
Should an asylum seeker elect not to use the path above, and still seek to come to Australia by boat, they would be processed on shore, but only be entitled to limited TPV style limited visas. This would act as a deterrent.
The balance of carrots and sticks.
A genuine regional solution like the above, if agreed, would take away the market for people smugglers as it would give a genuine alternative path to resettlement with the removal of the delay in resettlement. It would stop the boats.
If agreed the above policy would allow Australia to take a genuine regional approach and allow Australia to take its fair share of genuine refugees in a controlled, humane and dignified manner.
The policy would also remove the fear of terrorism as refugees would have been assessed for  health and security.
This would not act as a ‘pull factor’ to Australia as refugees would be in a lottery for resettlement options, but would still be escaping the persecution that the refugee convention is designed to provide.

Read more?

See here: Maria. This is the story of the Bosnian  refugee girl I met in northern Serbia. A 12 year old who changed my life forever.

But what is an alternative?

Below are some links to  my views on alternative asylum, but also a positive, short video extract from the Richard Searby Oration where I think setting out where Australia should be.

If you are interested in my views on alternative asylum policy, see my other blogs:


  1. Tampa 12 months on.
  2. Stop the Bollocks: Is Abbott trashing Australia’s reputation?
  3. Fear of refugees is a red herring.
  4. Resettlement not Processing is the real solution for refugees?
  5. Carrots and sticks can provide answers to asylum policy.
  6. Mental health of refugees our new Stolen Generation.

More discussion like this is in: 


One Reply to “Carrots and Sticks can solve the refugee debate”

  1. Dear Andrew,

    I see this is a 2011 post, but I have arrived at it from your current Twitter feed. It seems though it remains as current as ever. I worked on Christmas Island in 2010. I see no significant change since, effectively.

    I agree wholeheartedly that the issue is resettlement – legitimate and speedy. I like your regional treaty suggestion – esp. the carrot aspect.

    It seems to me though that simple solutions are so much easier to describe that to actually either do or to see put into action. Who is going to do this? What is the process? “Regional solution” sounds to me at once 'correct' yet also a recipe for more years of talks and debates. Not intending cynicism… but just wondering how to arrest to effective inactivity. I find myself (embarrassingly!) having moved from being horrified by the issue of Australian asylum seekers to being bored by it.

    The other caveat is to wonder – if the solution is so simple, why has it not been done yet? I wonder if your 3rd goal – that of enhancing Australia's reputation – has not really been a core concern? And I wonder at what the real motivations are behind the expensive and traumatic processing delays.

    No great insights. Just food for thought.


    Amy Neilson


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