Rocking the Boat

By Ben Zala

The recent announcement of Australia and Malaysia’s agreement to “swap” asylum seekers starkly demonstrates how willing decision-makers are to react quickly, rather than find sustainable solutions to the global refugee crisis.

The deal obligates Malaysia to accept 800 refugees who have arrived by boat into Australian territory; in return, Australia will accept 4,000 long-term refugees from Malaysia over a four year period. The deal, largely pushed by Canberra, aims to silence domestic critics drawing attention to Australia’s so-called “boat people crisis” (despite the fact Australia receives around two percent of those attempting to enter Western countries). Australia wants to discourage arrivals by boat in order to placate a hostile domestic constituency—this deal would do so by reinforcing the image of government control in choosing who enters the country and in what manner. Malaysia has little to lose, given that the overall effect is to offload 4,000 long-term refugees (mainly from Burma) in return for the immediate resettlement of a much smaller number. Since it is not a signatory to the United Nations Refugee Convention, Malaysia faces few constraints on the nature of this resettlement.

The latest in a long line of Australia’s attempts to avoid dealing with the root cause of the problem and pass on accountability, this new deal signifies a disturbing sign of things to come. Addressing the unauthorized arrival of asylum seekers from the Global South in the wealthy and stable countries of the North (including the geographically southern Australia) requires long-term, comprehensive solutions—not a short-term passing of the buck.

Just over a year ago, in one of her first moves as Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard announced a similar deal with East Timor. In an attempt to appeal to a constituency hostile toward the idea of accepting more refugees, Gillard announced that she had negotiated a deal with East Timor (one of the world’s poorest countries) to host a regional refugee processing center. The only snag was that East Timor had not, in fact, agreed to do any such thing.

This major diplomatic faux pas has dogged the Gillard government for months, which hopes the new deal with Malaysia will, at least in part, restore its image. In a sense, Gillard is looking to former Prime Minister John Howard, who led Australia from 1996 to 2007. His policies of mandatory and often prolonged detention for asylum seekers and his so-called “Pacific Solution”—built around processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea—were misguided attempts to control (rather than address the factors driving) refugee flows. They were nonetheless popular with the Australian electorate, and Gillard likewise hopes to tap into that wellspring of anti-refugee sentiment.

The EU’s reaction to increased numbers of boats arriving in Italy from North Africa exemplifies the same short-sighted principles. The immediate, crisis-driven response has been to limit the terms of the Schengen Agreement on freedom of movement across EU countries—however, there has been little discussion about long-term solutions.  

Such limited and ultimately self-defeating “solutions” are hardly exclusive to the wealthy countries of the North. India’s infamous fence along the 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh is aimed solely at keeping out unauthorized immigrants. Recent reports of fewer fatalities along this heavily militarized frontier are due to the introduction of non-lethal weapons—not because shooting has stopped.

The flow of refugees won’t be slowed by barbed wire fences or armed guards. Nor will it be contained by rich countries striking deals with their poorer neighbors to host detention centers or accept boats of people that they won’t process for fear of domestic backlash. Current trends in global security indicate that refugee-producing conflicts are likely to increase. Even if only some of the current predictions prove to be accurate, there is little doubt that governments will come under increasing pressure to cope with the movement of people searching for peace and prosperity across borders.

Building a holistic and sustainable approach to what the United Nations now calls the “global refugee crisis” won’t be easy and will force difficult political choices. Leaders like Gillard will have to explain to voters that complex global problems require more than just short-term “voter-friendly” solutions. While asylum seekers leave their homes and families for a variety of reasons, insecurity of one kind or another is almost always at the heart of the decision. If any genuine progress is to be made in decreasing the numbers of refugees globally, nations—and particularly those in the Global North—must address the long-term trends driving global insecurity. For example, the majority of people seeking asylum in Australia come from Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia. These regions face the highest risk of climate-related conflict, making the security implications of a warming world an immediate priority. While Australia should continue to work with transit countries like Malaysia (for example to improve conditions for refugees), the real effort must be made in the countries and regions producing refugees. Until legitimate attempts are made to address the problems driving refugees out of their homes—such as on-going military conflicts, economic insecurity, and increasing environmental and resource constraints—the problem will only continue to get worse.

Rather than treat the symptoms, we must cure the disease. Global refugee influxes are created by complex issues of global insecurity. The sooner governments realize this, and begin to address the drivers of these issues, the sooner sustainable solutions will be found.


Ben Zala manages the Sustainable Security Programme at the Oxford Research Group.

[Photo courtesy of Flickr user United Nations Photo]

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