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Twelve days after usurping the Labor leadership, new PM Julia Gillard outlined her "boat people" policy to an anxious public. The plan? A "regional processing centre" on East Timor.
There was nothing new about the idea - regional processing has been part of Australia's response to asylum seekers since the first wave of Indo-Chinese refugees in the late '70s. The only novel aspect of the policy was the astonishing speed with which it was cobbled together. A hasty call to Timor-Leste's President Jose Ramos-Horta, a quick chat with the UN, and Gillard was ready to strike asylum seekers from her pre-election to-do list.
Yet the issue of "boat people" can't be swatted away so easily. Australia needs to develop a considered, long-term approach to asylum seekers and refugees because they could be heading our way for a long time to come.
At the Copenhagen Conference in December 2009, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), António Guterres, predicted that climate change will become the biggest driver of population displacements within the not too distant future. The numbers we're talking about are astronomical. His agency predicts
between 50 and 200 million people to have moved by 2050.
Even if Australia processes only a thimbleful of the planet's "boat people" - we're ranked 20th out of 44 countries based on asylum seeker intake as a proportion of population - then we're still looking at a significant increase. How might we respond to this next wave of asylum seekers, often called "climate refugees"?
Our legal obligation
Straight away our speculation about climate refugees hits a snag. "There's no such thing as a climate or an environmental refugee in international or domestic law," says David Corlett, author of Stormy Weather: the Challenge of Climate Change and Displacement and Swinburne University of Technology adjunct research fellow. "It's a non-existent category that conveys no rights."
Under the 1951 Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion". Environmental factors are largely irrelevant.
But the Convention was established in the aftermath of World War II, nearly 60 years ago. Surely it's time for a re-draft?
That's unlikely to happen, says Corlett. If a debate were opened up about the meaning of "refugee", signatory states would probably try to restrict the definition rather than expand it.
That would leave asylum seekers - including those displaced by climate change - in an even more precarious position.
Refugee advocates are also opposed to tinkering with the current definition. "I don't think it's helpful to bring any more people into the Convention because it's struggling as it is," says Pamela Curr, campaigns co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne.
Even some "climate refugees" don't want to be included in the Convention. In 2009, Australian academics Jane McAdam and Maryanne Loughry visited the photogenically fragile Pacific island nations of Tuvalu and Kiribati, predicted to be the first affected by sea level rise. As the scholars discovered, the term "refugee" irritates locals, who see themselves as resourceful providers, not passive victims. Their solution to rising sea levels is to "secure options for labour migration to Australia and New Zealand". "They want to be skilled migrants, rather than refugees," explains Curr.
That doesn't mean we can dismiss the damaging effects of climate change displacement. Pacific islands nations are a special case. They have small, relatively mobile populations and a history of successful migration. More worrying are the tens of millions of people living in low-lying delta regions, such as Bangladesh. If environmental factors forced these people to flee, Australia would probably have no legal obligation to protect them.
A moral obligation?
The law is one thing; justice is another. As an industrialised country with a hefty carbon debt circulating above our heads, do we have a special responsibility to assist and accomodate those left landless by human-induced climate change?
Australian Greens Deputy Leader Senator Christine Milne thinks so. "Australia is historically one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. Whether we are legally obliged to or not, we certainly have a moral obligation to help those who climate change will hurt or displace."
Corlett agrees. "Australia has obligations to people fleeing climate change related displacement because it both has the means to do so - it's relatively wealthy - and because it shares responsibility for the processes that have led to climate change."
Fine sentiments, but no less than you'd expect from such left-leaning, compassionate souls of the community. What do the hard-headed politicians in the major parties say?
"It's an issue of social injustice that those people who will literally lose their homes and their livelihoods and their countries are among the most negligible emitters of greenhouse gases." That was Anthony Albanese, Shadow Minister for Environment, Heritage and Water in 2006, talking about our Pacific neighbours. Here he is again: "Australia is the highest per capita emitter in the world and we have a moral obligation to give assistance to those in need."
Sounds like everyone's reading from the same media release. The Labor party even has a policy about Pacific climate change.
A 2006 discussion paper, Our Drowning Neighbours, proposes "an international coalition to accept climate change refugees".
Yet when the Greens tried to introduce a climate change refugee visa in 2007, Labor opposed it. Why?
Perhaps because the idea of a moral obligation to global warming's evictees appeals to our better natures, and altruism doesn't win votes. Stoking self-interest does. And herein lies the million-person question: will Australia's response to "climate refugees" be based on lofty humanitarian ideals or political expediency? Let's look at two scenarios.
Corlett imagines Australia's response to "climate refugees" on a continuum. At one end, he says, we might "develop a response that's based on principles of human rights and human dignity". This might include preventative measures, such as lowering greenhouse gas emissions. It might also include international and regional agreements to support the displaced and resettle those forced to leave their homelands.
At the other end, we might "develop a sort of populist, exclusive, nationalist response that emphasises our own rights over the rights of others". This might include regional zones of exclusion, where "the most vulnerable live in squalor". It might also include "a fortress of some sort" with the navy patrolling the nation's borders.
In his book, Corlett poses a scenario that tends towards the pessimistic. It's 2020, and a fictional asylum seeker, Mustafa, has fled his homeland due to a climate change-induced disaster. The Australian government refuses Mustafa entry, saying it's time to "protect our own". Mustafa is taken to a "Reservation" in a poor country where he is "warehoused" in squalid conditions.
"It may seem alarmist, but I don't think it's altogether out of the question," says Corlett. "There's a danger we'll end up going down that end of the continuum as a 'knee-jerk'. It's possible to look at Australia's response to asylum seekers throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, to Europe's attempt at regional processing, and at some of the academic literature and go 'this doesn't look great'."
Corlett adds that if the estimated number of climate change displacees is even remotely accurate, we won't be able to get away with folding our arms and saying "we're not going to let you in".