Australia: withdraw or not withdraw from the Refugee Convention?

This post originally appeared on the  New Daily here.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s
recent hypothecation that Australia may withdraw from the Refugee Convention (see here) raises three very interesting issues. Firstly, is the Refugee Convention an
agreement that is broken? Would withdrawal take Australia harm or enhance its
image, and finally is there an alternative and better policy solution?
You may think that as an ex-UN official and
former human rights lawyer my answers may be no, yes and no. Perhaps
surprisingly I will put an alternative view.
Firstly, is the UN Refugee Convention
The UN refugee Convention was written
specifically to deal with the massive population movements in Europe post World
War 2. The Convention originally had a geographic limitation (Europe) and a
time limitation. Fairly quickly member states removed both the geographic and
time limitations but without amending the substance.
In other words, the Convention itself was
not written with today’s current circumstances in mind and hence it is not set
up to deal with current circumstances in an optimal way.
That having been said no Convnetion is
perfect and international agreements are always a case of not letting the
‘perfect being the enemy of the good’. The Convention is flawed, but not fully
So, should Australia withdraw from the imperfect
While the weight of opinion favours maintaining
a flawed Convention over no convention at all, the view is not universally
accepted. It can be argued both ways. But for those who are against boat
arrivals though, a withdrawal from Convention wouldn’t slow boats.
A proportion of Indonesian arrivals would
still try to get to Australia by boat regardless of the convention status. By
withdrawing from the Convention any hint of a legitimate ‘queue’ in Indonesia
would vanish and indeed may encourage more, not less, boat arrivals as there
would be no alternative to boats.
Hence it would be a poor strategy to
withdraw from the Convention if in doing so the objective was to slow or stop
What would the ramifications of withdrawal
be if Australia did so nevertheless?
Some have said that Australia is drifting
towards pariah status. For others this is an absurd proposition based on the
belief that Australia is a good country. Remember though, many South African
Boers didn’t see the problem with apartheid and didn’t accept that their
country was an outsider.
A withdrawal from the Refugee Convention
would without doubt be viewed extremely negatively by many other nation states.
A withdrawal would undoubtedly drift Australia closer to becoming a pariah
state, it is just not sure how much of a drift that would be. There very well
may be either travel, sporting or economic consequences or there may be few.
But is it worth the risk?
This is a tough policy area. There is an
international convention that is flawed, not entirely fit for purpose but
‘better than nothing’ in many people’s minds. There is a huge political risk
associated with the international perception of Australia should Australia
withdraw from that flawed convention. So is there another solution?
The African Union negotiated a regional
treaty to amend the Refugee Convention as it applied to certain African states
to deal with local circumstances. I believe our region should do the same.
Wouldn’t it be better to have a regional
amendment including Indonesia, Malaysia, Nauru, New Zealand, PNG and others to
deal with asylum seekers on a regional basis? Couldn’t we say that asylum
seekers arriving in any country by whatever means should be declared as
‘arrived in region’ and processed in country of first arrival?
Couldn’t countries cost-share the processing
cost, repatriation cost for failed claims and burden share the resettlement of
successful applicants?
Just say a negotiation yielded a 15%
proportion to Australia, 15% to Indonesia, 5% to New Zealand and so on. If an
asylum seeker arrived in Indonesia then that asylum seeker would be processed
in Indonesia with the cost shared by proportion. If that asylum seeker were
successful then he or she would be sent to whichever regional country is
underweight on refugee resettlement.
Critically the asylum seeker would not get
to choose. If Nauru were underweight on recipients, then they would go there.
If Indonesia were underweight then the asylum seeker would stay there. If it
was Australia’s turn, then the asylum seeker would go there. In a sense the
regional agreement would create a replacement ‘queue’ for the one that doesn’t
currently work.
Is it harsh to remove choice from the asylum
seeker? I argue, no. The Refugee Convention is there to offer protection from a
well-founded fear of persecution. It is not a back door to migration. If one
flees Afghanistan because of the Taliban, and is offered Nauru, they must
accept it. There is no Taliban in Nauru.
If an asylum seeker were to still ignore
this system and jump on a boat, there would be every right for member states to
play hardball and send asylum seekers back to the rear of the now existing
Such an agreement would remove Indonesia’s
objections around the Convention, it would create a new regional partnership,
would create a sense of fairness between nations and for asylum seekers. It would
also provide a mechanism for better boarder protection and processing on a
regional basis.
Surely we should sit with our regional neighbors
and work on a partnership? Rather than withdraw from the Convention, ask
yourself, would Australia not be better served it were a partner rather than a
Andrew Macleod is a
former senior official of both the United Nations and the International
Committee of the Red Cross. He is the author of ‘A Life Half Lived’ by New
Holland Press and can be followed on Twitter @andrewmmacleod.




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