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More Focus on the Roots Needed for Policies on Forced Migration

Published 12 Dec 2018
Amy Lin

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has recently indicated that like the US, Australia will not sign the 2018 UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This reflects a general trend of many Western countries turning to tougher policies on forced migration, which centres mainly on deterring people from the country. Yet such an approach is misguided, and more focus should be placed on forming strategies that address the factors that push people out of their countries and accept the services of human traffickers.

In recent years, Australia’s policy towards refugees have largely revolved around boat turn-backs under Operation Sovereign Borders, and the continuation of offshore processing centres that was started by John Howard. Like other Western countries, Australia’s refugee intake and foreign aid has also decreased over the past few years. In spite of criticisms that these policies are a violation of human rights, the Australian government has justified them by saying it prevents the deaths of people who drown on the journey to countries like Australia and that it is a mean of breaking the people smugglers’ business model.

In the aftermath of the 2015-16 migration crisis in Europe, Australia’s tough stance on refugees and asylum seekers have gained popularity amongst politicians globally, particularly among those leaning further to the right of the political spectrum. For example, EU leaders have recently shown interest in building asylum seeker processing centres in Africa, following in the footsteps of Australia’s offshore processing policies.

Yet there are a number of pressing issues with such an approach to forced migration. In spite of the Australian government claiming that its stricter refugee policy has prevented deaths at sea, it does not account for the deaths caused by the psychological damage from the lengthy detention process. It is also a very expensive policy, with Australia’s border protection policies costing more than $4 billion during the last financial year.

The most significant issue, however, is that the policy does little to address the core reasons why people choose to forego refugee camps and seek out the services of human traffickers. Political instability, poverty and the lack of job opportunities are some of the core reasons that are pushing many refugees and asylum seekers out of their countries. For many refugees, the journey to the refugee camps can often very dangerous and once they get there, many become frustrated at the long resettlement process and the insufficient living conditions within the camps. As a result, many refugees will turn to people smugglers because they feel they have no other choice of gaining a better life.

Although Australia has contributed to the international development assistance to refugee camps, it does not do enough to address the root issues that push people to seek out the human traffickers who will assist them in getting to Australia. Not only has the number of refugees and internally displaced people been increasing every year, but even though more refugees are prevented from reaching Australia, it is still unclear if the number of people who are forced to make the journey has actually decreased. This highlights that tougher forced migration policies have not been successful in reducing the number of people forced to migrate to different countries for a better sense of security.

Instead, there needs to be more flexibility when it comes to migration. As noted by many humanitarian groups, stricter border protection policies will not stop the human trafficking operations. On the contrary, it will only encourage human traffickers to find new, and often more dangerous, routes into the desired countries, which leads to more refugee deaths. That is why providing safer, legal means of migration will drive down the demand for people smuggling, consequently limiting the success of the industry.

At the very least, conditions in refugee camps must be improved so that refugees are less compelled to turn to human traffickers. People smugglers regularly advertise their services in places like refugee camps. By providing refugees more opportunities and a greater sense of community within the refugee camps themselves, refugees will find less incentive to pay people smugglers to help them migrate to Europe, Australia and other Western countries.

As long as factors such as poverty, political instability and the lack of social mobility persist, more and more people will be pushed to seek destinations where they are offered a better sense of security. More successful long-term policy responses to forced migration will ultimately take into account the factors that push people out of a country, as opposed to simply focusing on mitigating the factors that draw migrants in. Therefore, the Australian government and the international community should focus on more holistic policies that deal with the root causes of forced migration, rather than simply de-incentivising the migration to the country.

Amy Lin is a final year Bachelor International Studies (International Relations) and Bachelor of Media (Public Relations and Advertising) student at the University of New South Wales. Her one-year exchange in Japan, and her involvement in the UNSW United Nations Society nurtured her strong curiosity of non-Western perspectives on international relations. She currently volunteers for local NGO, Australian Refugee Volunteers, and her key areas of interest are soft power, East Asia and migration issues.

Amy is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.