ESSA

ESSA

Opening the front door wider


Emily Vuong

By

October 21st, 2013


Earlier this year, former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser argued that a solution to the refugee crisis exists. Did his policies work then and would they still work now? Emily Vuong explores.


The Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese Refugees (CPA) has been praised for upholding ‘international solidarity’ and responding to what was the burgeoning refugee crisis of 1989.[1] It has also been criticised for its execution, with critics arguing that it is an example of international buck-passing and questionable compromises. Regardless, the CPA has since affirmed itself as a practical model that allowed policy makers to combine humanitarian principles of compassion with political pragmatism.

In 1989, the international community was forced to devise the Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) as a response to the humanitarian crisis of Southeast Asia. Almost 10 years after the initial refugee convention in Geneva was held, 70 countries signed a multi-faceted agreement to resolve the Indochinese boat people crisis.[2]  The CPA established joint commitments between Southeast Asian countries of first asylum, resettlement states and the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments.

The CPA’s key objective was reducing ‘clandestine departures’ by implementing a lawful and organised approach to processing boat arrivals.[3] This involved promoting increased opportunities for legal migration under the Orderly Departure Program.

Academic Robert Manne declared the implementation of the CPA as ‘the halcyon era of Australian refugee policy’.[4] Fraser’s era is often held up as a time when governments were able to put aside political spin and uphold their duty to be good global citizens.

It was a time when the international community and political parties of Australia were able to recognise the urgency of the humanitarian crisis by offering protection (in the form of permanent resettlement) to those genuinely fleeing persecution.

From a political perspective, the CPA proved to be a viable regional solution in terms of carrying out the disciplined intake of boat arrivals. Malcolm Fraser believed that those arriving by boat were essentially skipping the queue and entering through the country’s ‘back door’. He believed that the solution would be to ‘open the front door wider’. [5] In a few years, the number of those seeking asylum plummeted and thousands were successfully integrated and resettled in first asylum countries.[6]

The pragmatic approach taken by the government was fraught with controversy as political agendas collided with humanitarian concerns.

Much like today, the negativity surrounding illegal boat arrivals was fuelled by political rhetoric. The term ‘queue jumpers’ was reverberated in the media throughout the Fraser era, adding to the sense of public angst with regards to the masses arriving by boat. Interestingly, Article 31 of the Refugee Convention states that: ‘refugees have the lawful right to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of how they arrive’. The conduct of the Australian government in carrying out their obligations under the CPA were not in line with the Refugee Convention. On closer inspection, the Fraser government did not show the high levels of compassion that is often associated with its legacy. Legislation was passed in government as a means of ‘stopping the boats’. Desperate attempts to deter boat arrivals were made in 1980 when the government passed the Immigration (Unauthorised Arrivals) Bill.[7] This in effect, not only discriminated against those who perpetrated people smuggling, but also punished genuine refugees by denying their right to travel by boat when there were no other means.

The CPA model was certainly not perfect. However, voluntary repatriation, resettlement and the concept of local integration have since proved themselves to be a viable solution. It is within Australia’s national interest to offer assistance to those in need. We should do this by implementing durable solutions to the crisis, rather than shun genuine and desperate boat arrivals. Actions such as local integration offer a sustainable long-term solution, rather than the current government’s policy of physically ‘stopping the boats’. [8] Implementing such policies grants refugees the best chance of rebuilding lives with dignity and peace. [9]

As Australians, we should not walk away from the spirit of the CPA or the Refugee Convention. Humanitarian principles remain the same as they were forty years ago. Governmental refugee policy should not perpetrate fear of asylum seekers. The solution is to focus on the policy and not political point scoring. And it certainly should not feign ignorance about the fact that genuine refugees are deserving of resettlement and a better life.

 


[1] W. Courtland Robinson, The comprehensive plan of action for Indochinese refugees, 1989–1997: Sharing the burden and passing the buck, Journal of Refugee Studies, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2004, pg. 319

[2] Keane Shum, A New Comprehensive Plan of Action: Addressing the Refugee Protection Gap in Southeast Asia through Local and Regional Integration, pg. 60-61

[3] W. Courtland Robinson, The comprehensive plan of action for Indochinese refugees, 1989–1997: Sharing the burden and passing the buck, Journal of Refugee Studies, United Kingdom, Oxford University Press, 2004, pg. 320

[4] Hal Hewson, Malcolm Fraser’s refugee policy: no model for today, Sydney, Solidarity, 2012, pg 1

[5] ibid

[6] Keane Shum, A New Comprehensive Plan of Action: Addressing the Refugee Protection Gap in Southeast Asia through Local and Regional Integration, United Kingdom, Oxford Monitor of Forced Migration, pg. 60-61

[7] ibid

[8] Riley, A., ‘Where to now for asylum seeker policy under Tony Abbott?’, Retrieved 16 September 2013, from <http://theconversation.com/where-to-now-for-asylum-seeker-policy-under-tony-abbott-18010>

[9] Keane Shum, A New Comprehensive Plan of Action: Addressing the Refugee Protection Gap in Southeast Asia through Local and Regional Integration, pg. 64

General References

Fraser, M., ‘Vietnamese refugees were a boon, not a burden’, Retrieved 16September 2013, from<http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/vietnamese-refugees-were-a-boon-not-a-burden-20130728-2qsh4.htm>

http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/f/who-conv.php

The views expressed within this article are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ESSA Committee or the Society's sponsors. Use of any content from this article should clearly attribute the work to the author and not to ESSA or its sponsors.

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