Australia’s Dangerous New Refugee Policy

Papua New Guinea is a struggling nation that ranks near the bottom of most indexes of human and economic development. It is also, as of this month, the new home of anyone who tries to reach Australia by boat to claim asylum.

That makes Australia the latest country to tighten the rules for those fleeing persecution. Beyond questions over whether the move will work and whether it’s legal, Australia’s decision raises a broader concern: Is the international commitment to refugee rights, which underlies the 1951 refugee treaty, starting to weaken?

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced the change July 19, stressing that even those whose applications were approved would have “no chance” of settling in Australia. “This is a very hardline decision,” he said, but one that balances the country’s security with its obligations under the 1951 refugee convention.

That’s far from clear. Rudd said the change, under which Australia will pay Papua New Guinea an undisclosed sum, was intended to “combat the scourge of people smuggling.” But his real aim seems to be fending off his conservative challenger in this year’s election, Tony Abbott, who has campaigned on the slogan “Stop the Boats” and promises to make the military responsible for stopping refugee seekers if elected.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said in May that transferring asylum seekers is only appropriate if the receiving state can provide a fair and efficient claims process and access to health, education and basic services that meet international standards. If not, the transferring country is in violation of its obligations.

Papua New Guinea, where life expectancy is 63 years and the average adult has fewer than four years of education, ranks 156th (out of 186) on the UN Human Development Index. Whether the country can properly care for asylum seekers is at best an open question.

Even if it can meet that test, Australia’s decision faces a second challenge. The UN claims that the convention commits states to sharing the responsibility of protecting asylum seekers, rather than trying to shift that burden elsewhere. By that benchmark, Australia looks to be violating the spirit of the convention, if not the letter.

What’s the justification for Australia’s move? Despite Rudd’s tough talk, the country is not being swamped by ocean-going refugees. In 2011, it received just 3 percent of global asylum seekers. Last year, 7,379 people arriving by boat were processed as refugees, an increase of 43 percent over the previous year. But the 4,766 maritime asylum applications approved still represent just 0.02 percent of the country’s population, or about one for every 5,000 Australians.

By contrast, there will soon be one Syrian in Jordan for every six Jordanians, the result of Syria’s drawn-out civil war. Jordan, the 115th-richest nation in the world, can’t afford to pay its neighbors to take refugees off its hands. Australia, the 10th-richest nation, can. For both countries, however, there remains a moral obligation to provide a refuge for those fleeing persecution. Is it acceptable for a country to essentially buy its way out of it?

That’s the real risk of Australia’s new policy: Other countries might follow suit, thus weakening the norms of behavior that underlie the 1951 convention. In ways small and large, this process has already started. Last year, Canada overhauled its asylum system to restrict the ability of claimants from some countries to appeal the denial of their applications. A more worrisome case is Israel, which said last month that it would send Eritrean asylum-seekers to an unidentified third country.

The reluctance of the UNHCR to condemn Australia’s policy increases the risk that more countries will seek to follow its example. The commissioner’s office has stopped short of charging that Australia is violating the convention, saying only that it is “troubled” by the lack of adequate protection standards in Papua New Guinea, that the legal agreement with Australia has “significant shortcomings” and that integrating refugees there raises “formidable challenges.”

In diplomatic circles, that may qualify as harsh language. We can do better: What Australia is doing invites the unraveling of a treaty that has served the world well for 60 years. It may be that the treaty needs an update. Any changes, however, should arise from a proper debate among nations -- not as a result of politicians playing for votes by scapegoating asylum-seekers.

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