The “Cambodia” solution (that elusive regional framework)

There are an increasing number of reports Australia is seeking to send asylum seekers from Nauru to Cambodia.

This move has been criticised by some human rights groups. The Guardian story includes a note from the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees saying this policy is “not durable”.

I’m not for or against this proposal but I believe its unlikely to address core issues at the heart of Australia’s asylum policy.

I want more information on the agreement itself and more information about how this specific agreement would fit into a broader framework of regional processing.

Despite my skepticism, we should not be quick to dismiss policy options before they have been outlined. Thinking outside an ‘either/or framework’ will allow a more thoughtful consideration. An unrepresentative sample from my Twitter stream screams Cambodia is a bad idea. “Pro-refugee” politicians have decried it already. But what if the alternative is permanent settlement on Nauru? A country of 10,000 people without a future, surviving almost despite itself? A country where opportunity is restricted to those who can leave? This isn’t a future worth advocating.

I’m not saying the alternatives are simply Nauru or Cambodia. The policy scope should include Australia. Australia *should* settle the majority of people claiming asylum in our country. But burden sharing is the bedrock for any regional policy dealing with the movement of people, asylum or otherwise. To talk about “durable” solutions, as the UNHRC puts it, we must consider this. A regional solution demands it and a regional solution is required.

Yet the government cannot have its cake and eat it also. If the government is able to negotiate a trans-national agreement with Nauru and Cambodia, traversing jurisdiction and sovereignty with abandon, then the pretence of how Australian power stops at the border must be dropped. Offloading responsibility – as occurred in the aftermath of murder of Reza Berati – must not transpire again.

If the Australian government can dictate the transfer of people from the Christmas Island, to Nauru to Cambodia, then the dismissal of responsibility must cease as anything is seemingly possible. This relates to a wide variety of processes and procedures, including the processing of asylum claims.

In addition, a proper regional framework will only prosper with Indonesia as a partner equal to Australia. The government continues to make mistakes in this area, with the ‘on again, off again’ attendance of the Prime Minister at a Bali regional forum a sign this relationship is struggling mightily.

While we do not know the number of boats returned and towed-back, it is likely this still occurs. A sustainable regional framework requires Indonesia otherwise the phoney war will continue a la the war of drugs in the United States. This will be costly and stymie any ability for a bipartisan, long-term prescription for asylum policy.

The tragic events at Manus Island demonstrate ‘quick and dirty’ doesn’t work. The hard work on negotiation is yet to occur. You’ll know the government is serious when two countries see proper involvement – Indonesia and Malaysia.

Finally, the government’s rhetoric and bluster about no asylum seeker being resettled in Australia belies the entire notion of a regional framework. Why should Indonesia and Malaysia get involved if we aren’t willing to do our share? How can Australia play a more sustainable role when the humanitarian program was slashed from 20,000 under the ALP to 13,750 by the Coalition?

The government won’t admit this but this is the dilemma at the heart of its policy approach.

As I mentioned at the top, any Cambodian plan requires more detail and information. Resettling 100 people over time, with support, is likely possible. A small commitment over years, instead of a plan to be executed for the next news cycle. Simply transplanting an undetermined number of people, without the required support will have negative impacts for already vulnerable people and will not advance Australia’s asylum policy.