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Beyond the boats: building an asylum and refugee policy for the long term

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This report emerges from a high-level expert roundtable on refugees and asylum seekers that was held at Parliament House, Canberra, on 11 July 2014 under the auspices of Australia21, the Centre for Policy Development and the Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW. These organisations have a shared interest in Australian policy on this issue. In early 2014, a steering group from the three organisations commissioned a discussion paper entitled Beyond Operation Sovereign Borders: A Long-Term Asylum Policy for Australia.

A select but diverse group of policymakers and experts was invited to participate in the one-day roundtable. A full list of the 35 participants is contained at the end of this report, and includes parliamentarians from the ALP, the Liberal Party and the Greens; a former Indonesian Ambassador to Australia; a strategist from Malaysia; UNHCR’s former Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Erika Feller; former senior Immigration and Defence officials, including former Immigration Minister, the Hon Ian Macphee and former Chief of the Defence Force, Admiral Chris Barrie; academic experts; representatives from the churches and civil society, including Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers member, Paris Aristotle; and a designated youth representative, David Lang, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Prior to the roundtable, Australia21 ran two youth roundtables in Sydney and Canberra for people aged 18–30. The Sydney roundtable was exclusively for young people from refugee backgrounds. The views from both youth roundtables were fed into the high-level expert roundtable discussion.

The discussion paper provided the backdrop to the roundtable’s deliberations, amplified by brief written responses by each participant circulated in advance. The roundtable was structured around two key questions:

• How can Australia achieve a non-partisan approach to the care and management of the approximately 33 497 refugees and asylum seekers who are already in Australia, Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG)?

• How can Australia move to an integrated and coherent approach with respect to future arrivals of asylum seekers, bearing in mind Australia’s relative prosperity, our international legal obligations, our relationships with countries in the region, and the needs of those in search of protection?

There were four 90-minute sessions of open dialogue covering an assessment of Operation Sovereign Borders; possible responses to the situation of the asylum seekers already in Australia, PNG and Nauru; and ways in which a sustainable regional framework, and domestic and regional dialogue and engagement might be built outside a crisis management framework.

Discussions were held under the Chatham House rule and proceedings were audiotaped and transcribed without identifying individual speakers. While there was no attempt to reach consensus in the rich dialogue that resulted, there was consensus among the participants on a number of issues, including the need for a new national conversation on asylum policy in the Australian community. Notwithstanding the Chatham House rule, a number of participants agreed to have their comments on specific issues incorporated in this report.

Inevitably, there were differences in starting points and approaches. Some participants emphasised the imperative of taking a principled approach in line with international legal obligations and State responsibility, for instance. Others stressed the importance of combatting people smuggling and irregular movement, even if that meant maintaining a system of offshore processing. Importantly, however, the roundtable represented an attempt to find common ground, and to consider options that might involve various degrees of compromise, but which various stakeholders could nonetheless ‘live with’.

While the report seeks to capture the roundtable discussion, at times it also draws on the wider literature to help contextualise the discussions. We hope it stimulates a new national conversation about Australia’s future contribution to the protection of refugees and asylum seekers.