Over the past few days, it’s become clear that the Australian response to the Syrian refugee crisis is inadequate. In 2014, Australia offered 4,500 spaces within the existing refugee and humanitarian programs. On Sunday, Prime Minister Abbott announced that Australia would take a ‘significant’ number of Syrian refugees on top of this. Yesterday, he added that Syria is ‘an absolute humanitarian catastrophe’ and that ‘there is an unprecedented crisis…We will give people refuge: that is the firm intention of this government.’
But at the same time, it appears that the Coalition hasn’t yet decided on a clear policy, though voices in Cabinet have made suggestions. Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have advocated for a temporary protection refugee regime akin to the one the Howard government used to respond to the Kosovo refugee crisis in 1999. Meanwhile, Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has pushed for a concrete one-off increase of 10,000 refugee places, while the Greens have advocated for a 20,000 increase.
The refugee problem from Syria is immense. Over four million refugees are now in the countries bordering Syria—Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan—while there are an estimated 7.6 million internally displaced persons within Syria. As such, while individual countries are accepting more resettled refugees is a welcome change, this won’t solve the crisis.
Nor, solely, can a European response. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has committed to taking in all refugees who apply for asylum in Germany this year, which may see Germany taking up to 800,000 refugees at a cost of up to €3.3 billion. But Germany also wants to see direct EU responsibility for registering and looking after newly arrived refugees in Greece and Italy, as well as creating a common policy on safe countries of origin. Head of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Antonio Guterres, has similarly argued that Europe needs to create a mass relocation programme with 200,000 places The EU can’t, he suggests, respond to this crisis ‘with a piecemeal or incremental approach.’ But these plans still require refugees to have first crossed the Mediterranean.
Instead, what’s needed is a comprehensive global approach. Here, Australia can provide real leadership, modelled on the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) which was negotiated in 1989 to respond to the Indochinese boat people. The CPA successfully resettled over 500,000 refugees over a six year period, built around strong regional and international cooperation and regional screening of refugee claims.
To deal with the current crisis, such an approach would require three parts. The first would be to shift the processing of claims away from Europe and towards host countries. Regional processing centres could be established in Turkey and Libya, where most of the European refugee claimants are departing from. The UNHCR has noted that such centres could be legal under international law if they clearly reflect the international legal standards including the 1951 Refugee Convention and the principle of non-refoulement and have formal authorisation from host states. And the UNHCR would be the obvious organisation to run the process. Libya is facing significant insecurity; to ensure the safety of all refugees and migrants, any centre there would need international protection (from peacekeepers, for instance) even with government consent. Alternatively, it could be established in Tunisian territory along the border.
But these centres wouldn’t work without a clear forward path for processed refugees and provisions for safe returns for those denied claims. The target would be to resettle 400,000 refugees—10% of the total—by the end of 2016. This resettlement program could be combined with the regional program EU members are negotiating—which could also be combined with the temporary protection scheme suggested by Bishop and Frydenberg. The EU already has a Temporary Protection Directive created after the war in Kosovo. That Directive allows for refugees to be granted temporary protection in accordance with the Refugees Convention for a period of one year and can be extended. Given the nature of the Syrian war, a longer protection period would be warranted.
Finally, it’s critical that humanitarian assistance to the countries around Syria is also increased. The current UN Syria Regional Refugee Response Appeal is requesting US$4.5 billion but has only received 37% ($2.8 billion) of that total. The World Food Programme (WFP) has cut rations to refugees, can only offer US$13 per month for food to the most vulnerable refugees in Lebanon, and may need to cut all assistance to refugees in Jordan.
A comprehensive approach would give states the option to either commit to refugee resettlement, to funding the humanitarian operation and costs of the centres, or both. Most importantly, those approaches would significantly increase the burden sharing between the refugee hosting countries around Syria and the developed world.