Refugee rights groups have welcomed a decision by the Australian Government to increase its annual refugee quota to 20,000, a key recommendation in a recent panel report on asylum seekers.
"The increase to Australia’s resettlement quota will provide positive options for more refugees living in very difficult and often dangerous conditions, at a time when durable solutions for refugees are greatly needed,” Paul Power, chief executive officer of the Australian Refugee Council, told IRIN.
“We are pleased that such critical steps are being taken to implement the more positive measures outlined in the expert panel’s report. This is something Amnesty International has long called on the government to do,” said Graham Thom, the national refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia.
“Until today, these components have been absent from debate. Instead, the government hastily prioritized the more punitive measures of the report, such as offshore processing, which focus on penalizing refugees and asylum seekers rather than protecting them,” Thom noted, referring to a recent government decision to establish asylum-seeker processing centres on remote Nauru Island, and Papua New Guinea's Manus Island.
On 23 August, Canberra announced it would increase its yearly intake of refugees from 13,750 to 20,000, following the release of the report on 13 August by a three-member expert panel appointed to examine the issue and find ways to curb the flow of asylum seekers arriving in the country.
Increasing Australia’s annual refugee quota was one of 22 key recommendations by the panel, led by former defence chief Angus Houston, aimed at encouraging migrants to use official channels of asylum rather than making long and dangerous boat journeys.
The number of boat people arriving in Australia in recent years has been increasing, the report noted, with more than 8,000 asylum seekers arriving in 2012 alone, according to local media reports.
“This increase is targeted to those in most need - those vulnerable people offshore, not those getting on boats,'' Prime Minister Julia Gillard was reported as saying. ''People who arrive by boat will get no advantage. It's not worth the risk to life and it's not worth the money, because there is absolutely no benefit to getting on that people-smuggler's boat.''
Hundreds of asylum seekers have lost their lives making the dangerous journey in overcrowded, rickety boats from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and elsewhere in the region.
If the new policy recommendations are effective in reducing the number of boat arrivals, the report proposed that Australia raise its annual refugee intake to 27,000 within five years.
But despite the government’s announcement, many activists remain concerned, noting the “devil is in the detail”. “Even with the increase, the refugee intake is still lower as a proportion of refugees to population than it was in the early 90s, before the [John] Howard [Prime Minister 1996-2007] government cut it in half,” said Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition.
“There are many details still to be announced. And the Expert Panel recommended that 3,800 of the extra places should go to refugees waiting within the region, so taking only an extra 400 refugees from Indonesia is only a small start. And they need to know now, when they will be coming to Australia… The four hundred recognized UNHCR refugees in Indonesia should be brought to Australia immediately.”
The government’s decision to re-establish an asylum processing centre on the remote island of Nauru was in line with the Houston Report. “The bitter pill of violating refugee rights on Nauru is not going to be sweetened by increasing Australia’s overall [refugee] intake,” Rintoul added.
Refugee policy has long been a divisive issue in Australia, even though the country receives only a small number of the world's asylum seekers annually, many on Christmas Island, a remote Australian outpost off the coast of Indonesia.
According to UNHCR, Australia received 11,500 asylum applications in 2011 - down nine percent from the year before - out of 441,000 lodged in the West that year.