Australia: protecting people on the move

10 July 2012|Catherine Marshall

Sydney, 10 July 2012 – Jesuit Refugee Service Australia is making a key contribution to the way in which asylum seekers are treated as they transition through South East Asia on their way to Australia.

The Director of JRS, Fr Aloysious Mowe SJ, is serving as a member of the Regional Cooperation Framework Consultative Group, established by DIAC last year as part of the Bali Process to see how transitory asylum seekers might be better protected while in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

The group will also be strategising ways in which to bring together expertise to see how services to asylum seekers in the region can be up-scaled and how to build capacity for NGOs which support asylum seekers and refugees in South East Asia.

‘If you can increase protection in the transit countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, the theory is that people will then have less reason to move to Australia while awaiting the outcome of their status determination or resettlement processes’, says Fr Mowe.

‘That’s probably true, and it may not apply to every single person – some people want to come to Australia by hook or by crook – but it’s clear that there are other people who, if they’re able to work, if they have legal protections, if they have education, will have no reason to risk their lives.’

A Regional Support Office (RSO) will be set up in Bangkok later this year as part of the Bali Process, which is an inter-governmental effort to combat people smuggling and the irregular movement of people across the region.

‘Even though, by and large, the Bali Process is still driven by enforcement issues – how to break the smugglers, how to stop trafficking, how to stop irregular movement – for the first time, the governments are also talking about protection’, says Fr Mowe.

‘In terms of our [Australian] humanitarian values, people die if they try to cross over. We never know how many people in a given year have actually died. Yes, we do see terrible events like those at Christmas Island, but who knows the numbers of boats that have disappeared without a trace? Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has been very concerned about this, and I do believe that there is a real humanitarian impulse behind this.’

To this end, Fr Mowe has been undertaking a scoping study of NGOs in Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to see what services they are providing asylum seekers and where they fall short, to determine what potential they have and to identify the key areas of support that asylum seekers in these countries need.

‘At the moment, in none of these countries is there a legal framework for asylum seekers and refugees because they are not signatories of the Geneva Convention. It’s always NGOs or communities that are doing service provision or support for asylum seekers’, says Fr Mowe.

‘If you have strong organisations on the ground, they in turn provide more protection for asylum seekers and refugees. If refugees have education, work and some degree of meaningful activity, and if they are free from harassment and intimidation, then they may stay put and wait for resettlement. But if they can’t work, if their children sit there for two years with no education, they’re going to say, “I’m not going to wait for resettlement because my life has been wasted and so I’ll get on a boat”.’

By Catherine Marshall

Explore more