|Title||JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE (UN Subcommittee)
Australia's relations with the United Nations in the post Cold War environment
|Committee Name||JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON FOREIGN AFFAIRS, DEFENCE AND TRADE (UN Subcommittee)
|Reference||Australia's relations with the United Nations in the post Cold War environment
|System Id|| committees/commjnt/4635/0011
CHAIR âWelcome. I must advise you that the proceedings here today are legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect which proceedings of the houses of parliament demand. Although the subcommittee does not require you to give evidence on oath, you should be aware that it does not alter the importance of the occasion and any deliberate misleading of the subcommittee may be regarded as a contempt of parliament. We prefer all evidence to be given in public but should you at any stage wish to give evidence in private you may ask to do so and the subcommittee will consider that request. We authorised your submission this morning. Do you wish to make any alterations or additions to your submission?
Mr Metcalfe âNo.
CHAIR âI invite you to make a short opening statement and then we will have questions afterwards.
Mr Metcalfe âThank you, Mr Chair and members of the committee. The department welcomes this opportunity to appear before the committee today in relation to its reference on the United Nations. As members of the committee would be aware, one of the department's primary responsibilities is the administration of the Migration Act, which sets out who can enter and who can remain in Australia. We have made a comprehensive submission covering our main interests and interaction with the United Nations, which is particularly via the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a major instrumentality of the UN. In relation to the committee's terms of reference, the key issue that has particular relevance to this portfolio in our view is the role and funding of UNHCR in managing the global response to refugee movements.
The international protection system is the outcome of states' acceptance of cooperative responsibility for resolving refugee problems. It depends on burden sharing and the orderly resolution of refugee problems. UNHCR is the crucial catalyst in guiding the international protection system's response to refugees. It is the Australian government's view that UNHCR is currently failing to effectively deal with a number of key caseloads that are having a direct impact on Australia, namely, the displaced persons from Afghanistan and Iraq. In part UNHCR's difficulties can be attributed to funding shortfalls. For example, the annual budget for the year 2000 was set at $933.6 million but was revised downwards to $824.3 million, resulting in a reduction in programs globally. Australia is UNHCR's twelfth largest donor and I am pleased to advise that Australia was the earliest donor to UNHCR's 2001 programs with a core contribution of $A14.3 million, an increase of $400,000 over the year 2000 contribution.
UNHCR's across-the-board cuts to operations as a result of its budget difficulties have not appeared to have regard to global priority setting and have the potential to impact adversely on Australia. For example, if funding for repatriation programs is removed, the likelihood of secondary movements to countries like Australia increases. Australia has urged UNHCR to undertake a global strategic planning exercise that would focus the organisation's efforts on core functions, set priorities across regions and sectors and reduce activities strategically according to need on a global basis.
We understand that the new High Commissioner, Professor Lubbers, has set up three teams to review the budgetary situation. These teams will address structural, operational and fundraising issues. Even if fully funded, UNHCR's annual budget of less than $US1 billion is to look after over 22 million refugees and people of concern, the vast majority of whom are in developing countries. This approximates to $US50 per person per year. In contrast, globally about $US10 billion is spent every year on processing asylum seekers who arrived in developed countries such as Australia. That is approximately $US20,000 per person, or $US150,000 per refugee accepted under the convention. As the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural Affairs, Mr Ruddock, indicated at the 51st meeting of UNHCR's executive committee and as indicated elsewhere, this inequity must be addressed if the neediest refugees are not to be marginalised and the capacity of countries such as Australia to respond effectively to protection demands is not to be impaired.
It is partly in this context that Australia, as part of the broader government UN treaty body reform agenda, has been pursuing reform of the UNHCR and its executive committee. The government would like to see UNHCR assist countries in providing protection to refugees while combating people smuggling and is seeking a re-exertion of states' control, enhanced leadership from the High Commissioner and greater leadership and direction from a reinvigorated executive committee.
It is also in this context that the government has initiated a review of the Refugees Convention. The review is not aimed at our withdrawing from our commitment to or support for the convention, but rather it aims to articulate the intended principles and objectives of the convention, identify areas where international and/or domestic interpretations have departed from those principles and identify our obligations to refugees and asylum seekers and recommend remedial action if and where necessary.
We understand that the committee is interested in the movement of refugees within the context of global people movement and people smuggling. We believe that irregular people movements pose the greatest threat to the international protection system. People smuggling not only undermines the fundamental principle that each nation state has a right to determine who can enter and remain in its territory but also puts at risk the lives of asylum seekers. It also undermines the capacity of the international community to support the UNHCR and the system of international protection. The creation within the department of the International Cooperation Branch last year provides a focus for us in developing cooperation with other countries on these issues. It is an institutional response that indicates the seriousness with which the government views this issue.
Our anti-people smuggling strategy is based on three key elements set within a framework of international cooperation. The first element of the strategy is prevention, which includes providing assistance to countries of origin and first asylum; addressing the root causes of refugee flows, such as poverty, through targeted aid funding; promoting participation of the international protection framework; and conducting an international information campaign to improve the level of information currently available about the risks and consequences of people smuggling and the availability of lawful avenues of migration.
The second element of the strategy is disruption of smuggling routes and activities, which includes placing additional compliance and airline liaison officers to investigate people smuggling operations and to advise airlines on the admissibility of passengers on flights to Australia; imposing penalties on carriers who bring unauthorised or inadequately documented passengers to Australia; interception, through cooperative arrangements with transit countries; entering into bilateral information exchange arrangements; and substantially increasing penalties for people smugglers, including imprisonment of up to 20 years and over $220,000 in fines.
The third element of the strategy is reception. This includes the new temporary protection visa system, anti-forum shopping legislation and the development of return and readmission agreements for non-refugees.
Have these strategies worked? It is still early days. There are some hopeful signs. The number of unauthorised boat arrivals from July to December 2000 was down 40 per cent from the same period in 1999. It is our view that the most significant factor causing asylum seekers to resort to people smugglers is the failure of the international community to properly support countries, such as Pakistan and Iran, which have been hosting very large refugee populations for very long periods of time and to provide durable solutions for refugees.
Australia has repeatedly urged the UNHCR and the international community to increase their support to countries of first asylum and to work together to find durable solutions for those refugees. It is in this context that Australia proposed a joint meeting of the Inter-governmental Consultations and Asia Pacific Consultations to take place on 5 April in Bangkokâin a couple of weeks time. Australia also welcomes UNHCR's global consultations as an opportunity for states and UNHCR in cooperation with non-government organisations, refugee protection experts and refugees themselves to strengthen the international protection system.
In conclusion, Australia is proud that it is one of the small proportion of refugee convention signatory countries that extend their protection obligations outside the strict boundaries of convention obligations by offering resettlement. Per capita, Australia maintains one of the largest refugee resettlement programs in the world. Of the 5.7 million migrants to come to Australia since the end of World War II, almost 600,000 have entered under humanitarian programs. Australia has a border management and visa control system that is the envy of many countries, and constant vigilance is required to ensure its continued integrity.
We consider that we have a good package of responses to the protection and people smuggling issues facing us, but we need to persist with the comprehensive approach, particularly to seeking international cooperation, if we are to be successful in the long term. If we are to achieve the outcomes we have outlined, we need UNHCR to give priority to the issues, generate donor contributions and work with countries of origin and first asylum to generate solutions. From UNHCR we will continue to require increasing levels of accountability, clearer priority setting, improved cooperative working arrangements with us to address the abuse of asylum systems, and closer attention to resolving the intractable case loads of refugees. Mr Chair, we are very happy to answer any questions that the committee has.
CHAIR âHow effective is the international cooperation now? We talk about what has been done under the auspices of UNHCR, but how effective is it? What else can be done to improve it?
Mr Metcalfe âI will make some broad introductory comments and Ms Bedlington, who is immersed in this issue, and Mr Okely will probably add some detail. I think we probably need to approach the question from two levels. The first one is multilateral cooperationâcooperation that exists within the UNHCR ambit and through other relevant bodies such as the intergovernmental consultationsâMs Bedlington will talk about thatâand also in relation to bilateral work that is under way.
In terms of bilateral arrangements, we have had close contact with a number of refugee producing countries, or transit countriesâcountries which produce outflows of peopleâfor some period of time. That is particularly true in the case of China, where we have seen reasonable numbers of unauthorised arrivals coming to Australia by boat over the last 10 years or so. We have not seen any for a little while. The department and the government pursued a very engaged approach to this particular issue. Essentially we were dealing with a caseload not of refugees but of economic migrants seeking to travel illegally. Australia has developed approaches with the Chinese government on returns of non-refugees and ways of dealing with those issues, which are, frankly, the envy of many other countries. That has been a direct result of engagement by ministers through the 1990s, including the current minister, his predecessors and senior officials, to ensure that we understand each other's systems and that we are able to work on these issues together. There have been similar types of bilateral arrangements in place elsewhere, but this is perhaps the most significant.
Something that is now a very high priority for usâessentially, the work of Mr Okely's branchâis to engage in similar levels of cooperation and contact with other countries of relevance, particularly countries of first asylum and transit for the caseload that we are now seeing. As the committee would be aware, in the last couple of years the caseload of unauthorised arrivals has largely changed and now comes from the Middle East and South Asia. There has been a need to develop a whole new range of contacts with countries in those regions. That is operating across a series of levels. There is a good deal of work to be done in establishing initial contact and trust. The minister has visited the region on at least two occasions in the last couple of years. Ms Bedlington and others have followed that up with detailed technical work. Similarly, we have hosted a number of delegations from those countries to build on the understandings, and we have been able to achieve a number of memorandums of understanding and other forms of written evidence of the cooperation.
Those issues work through a number of layersâinitial understanding, information and other operational exchange and capacity building where necessary. The ultimate objective, of course, is to secure agreement for the return of non-refugees to countries of long-term residence. That issue remains, and I suspect will continue to remain, a very significant and difficult issue, particularly, when one considers the circumstances of some of those countries. Having made those general comments, I will ask Ms Bedlington to speak in more detail.
Ms Bedlington âI will preface the comments that I am going to make with a couple more general observations. I think, internationally, there is an increased recognition of the fact that flows of peopleâwhether they be refugee flows, or lawful flows, or irregular flows, or smuggle flowsâare truly global in nature. It is not something that can be looked solely as a bilateral issue between two countries or, indeed, even regionally. If you look at the activities of people smugglers, we see people moving from the Middle East and South-West Asia through countries of Asia through to Australia. It takes in a lot of the globe.
I think that increased recognition is actually the start of a much more sensible approach and a much more international approach to cooperation on these issues. I think that is an important context. Cooperation in the past has also been characterised by its segmentation. There has been cooperation, at varying levels of effectiveness, on refugee issues, for example. Over here you have cooperation on irregular migration and people smuggling issues. I think what is now happening is that there is an increasing realisation that these two issues cannot be separated.
CHAIR âWas this done under the auspices of the UNHCR or was it done on a government to government level regardless of the United Nations' position? I am trying to see what tie-up there is with the United Nations and what is going on between governments.
Ms Bedlington âUnfortunately the answer is yes and no. I think that the links between refugee flows and irregular migration are not only being recognised by governments but it is partly at the urging of governments, particularly this government. The UNHCR is accepting that they can no longer say, `We are just a protection agency, we are concerned only with refugees.' Part of the global consultations that the UNHCR launched in the middle of last year is to look at this asylum-migration nexus: the impact that regular and irregular migration have on asylum systems and on the delivery of protection and, conversely, the impact of the existence of the need to honour protection obligations and the impact that has on the state's capacity to manage people flows. It is a very complex issue but I think that is part of this developing understanding that the cooperation needs to be much more comprehensive, integrated and sophisticated. You cannot manage the systems separately; you have to look at their interaction and try to manage the systems simultaneously. I think that is an important backdrop to both the UNHCR's and the UN's attitudes and the way in which they are trying to work with states to deal with these issues.
The other general comment I would make is that when we are looking at the effectiveness and preparedness of other states to cooperate, the perspectives of states and their national interests obviously diverge considerably. If you think about countries like Pakistan and Iran, as Mr Metcalfe mentioned, their views about the international community are going to be largely coloured by the fact that they have been hosting millions of refugees with relatively little, and decreasing, support from the international community. When they are faced with requests from us to cooperate, for example in relation to readmission, or to work with us to fight people smuggling, quite understandably their reaction is, `Where were you when we needed youâand still need you? You are asking us to do this and expecting us to continue to shoulder this incredible burden.'
Having said that, I think it could be said that national interests are converging in relation to people smuggling. It does not matter whether you are a developing country, a source country, a transit country or a destination country; there is a considerable convergence of the will to fight organised crime, to fight the exploitation of people, whether they are refugees or not, and to try to do whatever we can in cooperation to fight the people smugglers. Importantly, the only way we are going to have any chance of fighting such a global operation as people smuggling is by very effective international cooperation.
Mr JULL âWhat is the nature of your relationship with the UNHCR? Is it formal? Is it informal? Are you in constant contact? Do you share intelligence? How does it all work?
Ms Bedlington âWe have both a formal and informal relationship with UNHCR, which certainly includes continual contact. I will come to the sharing of intelligence later. The formal relationship with UNHCR is by virtue of the fact that we are one of the signatory states to the Refugees Convention and Protocol and also by the fact that we are a member of UNHCR's executive committee. We can participate actively in that forum, providing direction and guidance to the high commissioner in the exercise of his mandate. That is the formal relationship. Informally, we have ongoing contact with the regional representative, who is based here in Canberra. The relationship is primarily one of consultation and an advisory function from them. They have been, over many years, quite closely involved in talking about policy changes, how we do our asylum determination, matters of refugee law, and so on. It is a close consultative relationship and works very well at that informal level.
We also have considerable contact with UNHCR's headquarters in Geneva. We have an immigration counsellor who is based in the Australian mission in Geneva. She has very close working relationships with all the relevant bureaus of UNHCR's headquarters, including the Department of International Protection and most particularly with the resettlement section of the Department of International Protection. We are one of the key resettlement countries. I think the view generally is that Australia does very well in the settlement and integration of refugees. I think we make a major contribution to the consideration of resettlement policies.
CHAIR âIs there a textbook definition of `refugee'? We have economic refugees and political refugees.
âThe true definition of a refugee flows from the refugees convention. It is in article 1 of that convention. Essentially, it is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution for certain reasons. There are a number of reasons: their political beliefs, membership of a particular social group or whatever. Behind that question are numerous High Court decisions and an enormous developing international jurisprudence as to what is a refugee. One of the issues that I alluded to earlier is a concern within governmentâand the minister has articulated this concernâthat the definition of a refugee has been interpreted, reinterpreted, defined and worked through over 50 years, and perhaps it is headed in directions that were never originally intended. Reviewing the refugee's convention is ongoing work. The vernacular is, `He's not a real refugee; he's an economic refugee.' Essentially, there are some terms of art around this issue. A refugee is a person who is recognised as having a fear of persecution and where a state that is a party to the convention has committed not to return that person to where they would be persecutedânot to refoule that person.
Economic refugees are essentially people who are migrants but are illegal migrants. As we have seen classically in the Australian situation, many are people have arrived on boats from China. They have not come here saying that they are fleeing persecution; they have come here saying that they want a job. They have heard there might be an amnesty for the Olympics or for the republic or whatever it might happen to beâwhatever the latest rumour is spread by the people smugglers. They have come here for economic reasons. Clearly, they do not engage our obligations under the convention. They are not refugees in any sense of the word; they are illegal immigrants.
CHAIR âHow does the UNHCR arrive at the figure of 22 million?
Ms Bedlington âIt is through its work in countries that are hosting refugees. There are refugees who have been mandated refugees, whom the UNHCR says meet the definition in the refugees convention that Mr Metcalfe just outlined, or they are persons of concernâprima facie, they appear to be a refugee outflow, they are being provided with asylum as though they were refugees, but they have not been given the formal mandate status of a refugee. They do not include irregular migrants in the sense that we were just talking about.
CHAIR âThat is the point I was coming to. If there are 22 million genuine refugees and we have this enormous movement of irregular migrationâwhich is a wonderful term to useâwho knows how many people are actually seeking to move from wherever they are now to a country which they think is going to provide them with a better opportunity.
Mr Metcalfe âI think that we may have covered this in our submission, Mr Chair, but the International Organisation for Migrationâwhich is, as its name implies, an international organisation that deals with the movement of people, and it has been very active since the end of World War IIâestimates that there are about 100 million people who are outside their country of normal residence and are looking for permanent stay options elsewhere. If I did not read it in our submission I read it in some other material recently. One of the other important figures that IOM has arrived at is that the global profits from people smuggling are now at the $US4 billion or $US5 billion level. It is a big business.
Mr HOLLIS âI do not think it is going to decline, is it? This is one of the challenges that all governments are facing today and frankly I do not think any government has come up with an adequate solution. Whether or not it is through people smuggling, there are waves and waves of people moving, for all sorts of reasons, from one country to another or from one part of the world to the other. I do not think governments per se have come up with an adequate response to this new phenomena that we are facing in this new millennium.
âI certainly agree. Massive movement of people around the globe was certainly an emerging theme at the end of the last century and I think it will be one of the huge issues, together with environmental and other issues, in the 21st century. The role of governments and of international organisations in attempting to regulate that movement is a key issue, and we as a department are intimately involved in it. Australia has some unique advantages, of course, in that although recent events have proved that we are not immune from massive people movements, we certainly do have some geographic advantages. Also the fact that Australia has got strong border controls indicates that there is a very good understanding of the dimensions of the issue in Australia. In relative terms, the numbers of people we have seen are not large but they are certainly very large by Australian historical standards.
The government has very comprehensively looked at what its response should be, and I articulated that earlier. Issues such as aid, the ability of people to live in their own country, global conflict and droughtâas well as pure economics and an understanding that life in developed western countries may be more attractive than in other countriesâare going to motivate people, and I think you are absolutely right in saying that the people smugglers are going to operate in that environment and are going to provide people with opportunities. And business has now entered this particular set of dynamics in a way that we have not seen it before. Criminal business is now involved.
That does not mean that we should do nothing and say it is all too hard. I think we would rapidly find that Australia would be a very different place to what it is now. Therefore the strategies that we have adopted are certainly not set in concrete in the sense that that is what we are going to do and we are never going to do anything else. This is an evolving issue and we will continue to look for solutions. As Ms Bedlington said earlier, the root of many of these issues lies in countries around the world. We can do a lot ourselves, but at the end of the day it is the international community which has to address this issue. I think we are seeing signs of that. Certainly the UK and Europe have become much more fixated on the issue in recent times. There have been some fairly dramatic events in Europe, and certainly the UK home minister and the Prime Minister have been talking about the issue a lot. I think the French have become very focused on the issue because of the dramatic arrival of a boat a few weeks ago.
Mr HOLLIS âBut the French do not care; they just move them on somewhere else. If you go to any of those French ports today you see huge waves of refugees, and all the French want is to get them away. They do not care where they are going and they will assist them, and that is one of the problems that the Brits and others are facing. That latest boat may have given the French a wake-up call but up until then the French attitude was: move them on anywhere but France.
Mr Metcalfe âOne of the other dynamics as well is the availability of lawful mechanisms. I mentioned that in my opening comments. There is no way in the world that there are going to be lawful mechanisms provided to deal with the push factors or the demand factors from all of those people. Certainly Australia, and to an extent the US and Canada, are fairly unique in that we do have strong and positive migration programs and there are opportunities for lawful migration that to a certain extent blunt the desire of people to simply bypass those systems.
I think there is a growing recognitionâand Germany is one example, and I think the UK as wellâof countries saying, `In order to manage migration, we need to ensure that there are opportunities for people to come through the front door rather than simply climb in through the back window.' That comprehensive understanding of the issues and set of policies is something that is becoming more open to governments to deal with. I think we all agree with you very much that this is a major international issue and it needs major international responses.
CHAIR âHas there been any change of approach with Mrs Ogata's departure? Is there any obvious or current change of approach from UNHCR of the changeover?
Ms Bedlington âYes. I think it would be fair to say that the new High Commissioner has taken quite aggressive early moves to try to put UNHCR's budget on a better footing. The problem has beenâ
CHAIR âDoes that mean seeking more funds or making better use of what they have?
Ms Bedlington âBoth. One of the major problems that UNHCR has faced has been the difference between the amount that states have pledged to contribute and the amount that they finally do contribute and, also, importantly, the timing of that contribution. The UNHCR cash flow at various times has really been outrageous. If you were a business you would be bankrupt. They have people working all around the world providing humanitarian relief and they have a day's funding just because the actual donor contributions have not come through. The new High Commissioner has said that this just cannot continue. It does not enable them to plan properly and to set priorities, and always at the end of the year, because of this shortfall of actual contributions, they make drastic cuts to their activities that are not necessarily related to the level of refugee need.
CHAIR âDo we directly fund UNHCR, or is it part of the UN's budget?
Ms Bedlington âWe directly fund UNHCR.
CHAIR âWhat is our contribution?
Ms Bedlington âUNHCR does not operate on the same assessed contribution basis as the UN. It is a voluntary contribution, and that is the other aspect of it that the High Commissioner is concerned about. I was told in Geneva last week that one of the things that he is actually thinking about is whether an assessed contribution would provide more surety of funding and a higher level of funding.
CHAIR âThat is debatable when you see the other assessments.
Ms Bedlington âThat is correct, and I think it is more problematic as well because UNHCR is in a unique business. If you think about the international states' contribution to refugee protection around the world, it is not only in cash contributions to the UN body. For example, Iran claims to be spending $US1 billion a year on the refugees that it posts. It does not go to UNHCR; that is a cost that the state incurs because they are hosting the largest refugee population in the world. If you are doing an assessed contribution it seems to me that you would have to give some credit for the contribution the host country makes in terms of contributions in kind. It is a much more complex issue.
âOne hopes that the new high commissioner, with his `more aggressive approach' is successful. I sat in the Security Council when Mrs Ogata made her final speechâher summing up. Everything you have said, and everything the new high commissioner has said, she said then. She made a very strong statement identifying all these problems after 10 years in the job. She pulled absolutely no punches at all. She more or less she threw it back, as always happens in the UN system, and said the remedy is in the individual state members and they should take this responsibility. I fear that people like the Director-General and the executive director will continue to make these speeches and that states will make all the wonderful speeches. Everyone around the Security Council said what a wonderful job Mrs Ogata had done and did nothing to solve the problems that were createdâit was just words, words, words.
Ms Bedlington âThe other comment I would make about change follows on directly from those comments but in another context, which is in relation to the fact that the resolution of many refugee situations lies in the political will of concerned states to restore peace and stability and to contribute to repatriation programs. It is not just a monetary issue; it is resources sometimes of people who are prepared to go out there in the field and work. Madam Ogata used to place particular store on the fact that things like the Great Lakes crisis would not have happened if there had been political will on the part of the UN and the international community to go in there and protect refugees' lives. It seems like Professor Lubbers is just as strong, if not stronger, on this issue as well.
CHAIR âBut that is why a scale of assessment probably would not be any more effective than voluntary contributions, because for some people, the scale of assessment is voluntary anyway for some countries, it seems.
Mr Metcalfe âWe have a document here that I think comes from UNHCR. It is off their web site, and it provides details of funding and donor relations. We can let the committee have that. In saying that, I repeat what Ms Bedlington saidâthat this is about contributions to UNHCR; it may not reflect a full costing of a particular country's contribution to the issue. In Australia's case, we resettle 4,000 refugees every year as part of a humanitarian program of around 12,000 people, so there is a significant expenditure on that. In addition, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, there is an expenditure of tens of millions of dollars on people who arrive and seek asylum directly in Australia and who are required to be processed and considered. While Australia is a significant donor, its contribution comes in many other ways as well.
Senator BOURNE âI want to ask about something that is in the submission you have given us. We heard a little bit about it in New York. In your submission, under the heading of `Australian government review of UNHCR, ExCom and the Refugees Convention' you said:
... the government is undertaking a high level diplomatic initiative to work on the reform of UNHCR and ExCom.
When we heard a bit about that when we were in New York, it was a lot less startlingly shocking than I had originally thought. Can you give us a few details of what is happening with that?
Ms Bedlington âIn terms of what it is covering, how we are doing it or both?
âThe last time we heard it was in October or November, so I imagine it has gone on since then. It would be interesting to have it on the record how we are going about it and where we are up to as well.
Ms Bedlington âPerhaps I just give you a bit of detail about the sorts of things that we are trying to achieve out of the reform of UNHCR and its executive committee. We are hoping particularly to re-exert states' control over priorities and the way they operate. Part of what we want to see from UNHCR is greater leadership from the High Commissioner in particular but also from UNHCR as a bodyâgreater leadership in the sense of identifying the need for increased donor contributions and greater creativity and push for resolution of intractable caseloads like the Afghanis, for exampleâinstead of being reactive and doing what it is that donors see fit to fund. Instead, we want to see the UNHCR actually clearly, publicly and strongly putting on the agenda the need for donors and others to work together to solve the problems. Catalytic leadership, I guess, would be the way we would cover that.
For a long time we have pushed UNHCR for better accountability frameworks, better priority setting, better evaluation activity, more open and transparent reports on how they use the very considerable funds that they get from donors, particularly in terms of what they achieve for all this money. The sort of thing that in the Australian government context we are very used to about reporting in concrete terms on outputs and outcomes is not part of the UNHCR evaluation framework.
The other thing is for us to get assistance for UNHCR in helping us to find ways to redress that imbalance between the $10 billion that is being spent on developed asylum systems, much of which is to weed out from the applicants those who are actually irregular migrants rather than refugees, and release the resources and the capacity for states to actually provide UNHCR with more funding for the 22.2 million, that ten billion to one billion imbalance.
We certainly want them to recognise that they cannot deliver their protection work in isolation and in a vacuum. It is part of migration management. They have to work with us to help us fight irregular migration and people smuggling just as they have to recognise that, for example, humanitarian outflows and irregular migration actually reduce the capacity and willingness of countries of first asylum to continue to provide protection for genuine refugees. I guess that in some ways we could sum it up as a recognition that UNHCR has a pivotal role in mobilising the international community and they are also an essential part of states working together to handle these complex issues.
Senator BOURNE âIt seemed to me from what we heard when we were in New York that the way our diplomatic mission handles anything that we perceive as a problem is to try and get other countries together to discuss it to see how to go about best achieving the aims that we are after. Is that the case? Is that the way we are going about it and is that process actually working? Are people getting together? Are they discussing it? Are they coming up with ways that they think these things can be achieved? How are we doing it?
âWe are doing it at two levelsâone at the political level and one at the bureaucratic level, the officials level, if I could put it that way. Our minister has been very active in terms of putting this point of view, making it clear that Australia is committed to continue to honour its protection obligations but that we have got to have the UNHCR and executive committee processes work better. He has utilised opportunities like the Australian statement at the Executive Committee last October. He utilises opportunities in bilateral discussions he has with his counterparts with various other countries. Whenever we can create or have an opportunity to pursue that the minister has done so. He met with the High Commissioner very early on. Before he had the opportunity to meet with him, as soon as his appointment was announced he wrote to the High Commissioner electâas I suppose he was at that stageâsetting out Australia's perspectives on some of these issues and assuring the High Commissioner that we were standing ready to work with him on reform of the body.
At the official level there are a number of avenues that we can use. One is our interventions in the business in the executive committee, its standing committees, its informal working groups and so on. The others are in relation to other regional or multilateral bodies. One of those is the Asia-Pacific Consultations, of which we are a member, that discusses refugee issues. UNHCR is an observer at that meeting. It is another opportunity to deliver the consistent message. But probably the most important multilateral group is the Inter-governmental Consultations, which is a group of most of the western European countries, Canada, the US and ourselves. Most of the major donors to the UNHCRâother than Japanâmost of the resettlement countries, except for new countries like Burkina Faso who have either taken no-one or only half a dozen, and the countries with developed asylum systems are destination countries for people smugglers. We have a lot of commonality of interest in UNHCR's role and making it work better.
Australia is the current chairâthe chair rotates every yearâof the IGC. We will have the full round of consultations here in Australia at the beginning of next month. We are utilising this opportunity to develop an understanding of the need for the comprehensive and integrated approach that we talked about earlier and the critical importance of UNHCR in working with us to achieve those matters.
The other part of it is the global consultations of UNHCR itself, and we are working hard to take every opportunity to put our perspective on the issues and to constructively put suggestions for the way in which UNHCR and its executive committee can contribute to strengthening the international protection framework. The bilateral officials, with the normal sort of interaction that like-minded countries have, take every opportunity to try to develop the understanding and the need to work together.
CHAIR âWhat happens with the asylum seekers that nobody wants? This is the real problem. We even have cases in Australia where people may have a criminal record or they may have committed some other atrocity in their country of origin, they cannot go back to that country or the country won't accept them, we will not accept them and they are in limbo. This must be the case for refugees. The secretary reminded me of a situation in Hong Kong some years ago when there were a number of people that nobody wanted and would not take.
Mr Metcalfe âThere are still a few there.
CHAIR âSurely there must be some process by which these people can be accounted for.
âThe first thing to say is that there is a clear obligation on a country to take their own nationals back.
CHAIR âBut they won't.
Ms Bedlington âMany are not cooperative, but it does not necessarily translate, at the end of the day, that they won't. If they have taken formal measures to deprive the person of their citizenship, and if the person has no other citizenship, then the country is in breach of their international obligations in relation to the creation of statelessness. That does not stop some states. If you have an individual who is truly stateless, then countries around the world generally accommodate that through various mechanisms of permission to remain, humanitarian status or whatever. It does not translate automatically into refugee status, but it may translate into some other status that actually gives them somewhere to remain.
CHAIR âSo what has happened to these people in Hong Kong? They are still there aren't they?
Ms Bedlington âThey are still there, but the Hong Kong SAR government has finally, as I understand it, given them formal status. You are talking about the Vietnamese, I assume. They have provided local integration and my understanding is that that issue has finally been resolved. The Hong Kong government agreed.
CHAIR âAs you know, we have discussed it at another forum. There are people in Australia now who are in limbo. Both their country of origin will not take them back because they have no papers and we will not accept them. How long can you keep someone in limboâwhich is really where they areâwithout either our country accepting them or somebody else accepting them. You cannot keep people in detention forever on the basis that nobody will accept them. I know it is a difficult situation but I do not know what the answers are.
Mr Metcalfe âI think it is a very good question. The answer is that we have not found ourselves in the circumstance where we have had to specifically deal with that. We have had some situations where there have been long delays in obtaining the ability to send someone home. There are a couple of reasons that occurs. There can simply be the fact that the other government may be far less seized of the issue than we are, notwithstanding our representations, and simply that local bureaucratic procedures take months if not years to establish whether the particular individual came from a particular village and whether that person has permission to return to that particular place, and so on. Sometimes that concern is tempered with concern about what is going to happen when that person gets back if he or she is destitute, and those sorts of issues. There can also be a more overt refusal to cooperate. Unless the person actually volunteers to return, the country may be concerned that accepting back deportees or people being removed without the individual's agreement may, in fact, mean that that particular country is subject to criticism from human rights bodies. So that can be a motivating factor as well.
The requirement is for us to leave no stone unturned in pursuing those issues, and that is something we do. There is a particular caseload that has been in the papers in the last few weeks because of a report from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. Essentially, it concerns some people who are subject of criminal deportation from Australia but where their country of citizenship has been a lengthy issue in terms of negotiating arrangements for their return. We are hopeful that will be resolved soon. That has been our experience to date. In continuing diplomacy, continuing contact, continuing ways of trying to deal with the issue, ultimately we find a way to do it, and there are many ways of achieving that outcome.
I am very consciousâI am probably more conscious than many other peopleâthat Australian law requires that people remain in detention during that period and hence our efforts have been doubled and redoubled to try and find those solutions. What a government might ultimately do at the end of the day if the issue becomes intractable, I think, is an issue for a government. There are some clear policy issues there for a government to consider. People cannot be kept in detention forever but I think governments are also mindful of the fact that, if ultimately people get to stay, then that itself can become a pull factor and something that is marketed by people smugglers. The approach of successive Australian governments has been to continue to engage and work through ways of dealing with the issues and, as I have said, to date that has been able to be achieved.
Mr HOLLIS âPoliticians always love hypothetical questions.
CHAIR âBut not hypothetical answers.
Mr Metcalfe âAnd bureaucrats hate them.
Mr HOLLIS âWhat happens in a situation where someone in this country met the refugee definition of fear of persecution or death in their own country if they return, yet it could be proved that that person had committed atrocities in their original country? Despite what the atrocities might be they might also meet the definition of a genuine refugee. What would we do?
Ms Bedlington âThey would meet part of the definition of a refugee. They meet the part that says that they have a well founded fear of persecution if they go home. But for us to owe protection obligations under the Refugees Convention they must not only meet the inclusion part of the definition they must not be excluded, and the clause 1F of the Refugees Convention explicitly excludes from the benefit of international protection somebody who is a war criminal or has committed a crime against humanity.
Mr HOLLIS âAre you monitoring the situation in West Timor? How many refugees do you think are in the camps there?
âYou have put your finger on a point of some considerable contention. It depends whether you are talking to a particular NGO, to UNHCR, or to the Indonesian government. I think the harder questionâand perhaps in some ways the more important questionâis: how many of the people in the camps in West Timor actually want to go back to East Timor? The discussions at the standing committee of UNHCR last week on what is happening in West Timor did not come up with a figure. I think what is happening is a concerted effort on the part of UNHCR and an apparent willingness on the part of the Indonesian government to work together to try to bring to a conclusion the separation of those who want to return East Timor and those who want to resettle perhaps elsewhere in Indonesia.
Mr HOLLIS âIt has been put to us in a different capacity that most of the people who want to return, for one reason or another, have returned. I said `most' not `all', and it is said that a lot of those who remain for various reasons, maybe an association with the former administration or a genuine fear of what will happen thereâ
CHAIR âOr a fear brought about because of misinformation.
Mr HOLLIS âYes, and an amount of misinformation and activities within the camps as well.
Ms Bedlington âThere are certainly claims that there are militias who remain in the camps in West Timor, which does make it difficult to be sure that you have true wishes on the part of the people who are responding. There is another issue that UNHCR is working with IOM about, and that is the superannuation and entitlements of East Timorese who had actually worked for the Indonesian government. They look to be close to resolving that issue, although the final details are yet to be worked out. That may very well be a deciding factor for those individuals who feel that they can go back to East Timor without having given up all of the entitlements that they had accrued through their service for the Indonesian government.
CHAIR âWhat are the figures that you have gotâabout 60,000 still in West Timor camps?
Ms Bedlington âNo. I would rather take that on notice. If you are interested in that we can give you an update. I would have to check with my AusAID colleagues about what their latest figures are.
CHAIR âI think the figures we were given were something like 175,000 repatriated and 60,000 to 65,000 still in camps.
Ms Bedlington âIt is in that ballpark, but we can give you a short report if you are interested,
CHAIR âIf you could, yes. I must say, in the funding and donor figures that you gave us, it is quite staggering when you look at the contributions from some countries, like the Netherlands with US$47 million.
Mr Metcalfe âThat is why I say it is important to look at that in the context of the other contributions countries may make in terms of resettlement places or whatever.
CHAIR âBut there is a big commitment by the European Union countries, the European community.
Ms Bedlington âSome European Union countries. You will see that there are some with large GDPs and populations that are down below us on the table.
âYes, I did notice that.
Ms Bedlington âThere is one other comment I would like to add. The Australian contribution, for example, is the core contribution that we make direct to UNHCR, unearmarked, that they use for their entire operations. We also make contributions in response to particular appeals. For example, we made a contribution in their last funding year for their south-west Asia appeal to assist in relation to Afghani refugees, and we made a very substantial contribution to UNHCR in respect of their West-East Timor operations, which is not reflected in that table.
CHAIR âThank you very much for appearing before the subcommittee this afternoon. If you are going to provide that additional material please provide it to the secretariat and they will pass it on. Thank you.
âThank you, Mr Chair, and members of the committee.