Monday, 19 September 2016

How we made borders secure after Labor chaos - opinion piece for The Australian

This month marks three years since the Coalition Government came to power promising to regain control of, and restore integrity to, our nation's borders.

Yesterday marked the third anniversary of the implementation of Operation Sovereign Borders to stop the boats.

Critics said it couldn't be done. That we would not be able to end the uncontrolled flow of people-smugglers' boats and the tens of thousands of illegal arrivals they carried to Australia.

There is no doubt the task was herculean. The mistakes and misjudgments of the preceding half decade of Labor rule had unleashed a tsunami of 50,000, often undocumented people, which strained border agencies' ability to cope.

Three years on, we are able to assert, that once again, Australia controls its borders.

The boats have been stopped, lives of desperate and vulnerable people aren't being lost on a perilous sea journey, detention centres are closed and those necessary facilities that remain will soon be empty of all but those who pose a threat to our society.

This month also marks one year from our announcement that we would resettle — over and above the 13,750 places in our annual refugee and humanitarian intake — 12,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees displaced by conflicts in the Middle East.

The two events are entwined.

An act of compassion such as the Syrian intake would not be possible without the strong hand of Operation Sovereign Borders.

Large-scale migration and resettlement requires a social compact. Citizens must be confident that it is instituted in an orderly and controlled manner and that it is carried out for the betterment of all.

That confidence enabled Australia to resettle almost a million displaced people over decades since the horrors of World War II.

But in the turbulent period of 2008 to 2013, that confidence frayed. Australians were concerned by their government's inability to counter the people-smugglers and halt an unabated flow of hundreds of boats and thousands of people.

The Coalition's commitment to stop the boats and ensure that no one who came by boat would ever settle in Australia was a tough message, but it was also fair.

It meant that rather than someone with the money to pay a people-smuggler self-selecting as a refugee or asylum-seeker and demanding Australia's protection, Australia would again determine those who would be given the chance of a new life here.

It meant that again Australia could reach out to the displaced people in the refugee camps and countries neighbouring conflict zones: the most vulnerable, the persecuted, the traumatised, those unlikely ever to be able to return to their homes, those with little hope.

A direct dividend of these policies has been increased public support for our orderly migration and humanitarian programs. Renewed integrity in the system has enabled the Government to deliver the largest offshore humanitarian intake of the past 30 years.

In 2015-16, the Commonwealth issued 17,554 Humanitarian Programme visas. Of these, 8,284 were offshore refugees with offshore visas and 7,268 were offshore special humanitarian program visas.

The latest UNHCR figures show Britain resettled 1,768 refugees and France resettled 700 refugees last year.

This fair and equitable approach has resulted in 15,550 visas for people who were waiting, barely surviving, in the camps and communities overseas. It means 8,500 visas for people displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Iraq.

A year on from our commitment to resettle 12,000 refugees, more than half that number have visas; more than 3,000 have started their new life in Australia; and hundreds more are arriving each month.

Australia offers not just refuge, we guide and support people into a new life: a safe, healthy and hopefully happy future. We do all we can to help them overcome the traumas and tragedies they have experienced in the past.

Only about 30 countries, a mere handful, offer such a planned programme for permanent resettlement.

Australia has long been recognised as one of the leading countries in the world for resettlement of refugees. For the most part, with the US and Canada, we have been at the top.

It is a fine record, one of which we can be proud.

The commitment to 12,000 Syrian refugees combined with financial support to the UNHCR and other agencies shows Australia is again responding to this latest humanitarian crisis.

There is no doubt the world is confronting a challenge of proportions unseen since World War II, with an estimated 65 million displaced people across the globe.

The uncontrolled movement of huge numbers of people across borders in Europe and the large numbers of deaths in the Mediterranean is a replay, albeit on a far larger scale, of the crisis Australia was forced to deal with just a few short years ago.

Today I will accompany the Prime Minister to the first of two summits in New York convened by the UN and Barack Obama, which seek a more co-ordinated response to this mass movement.

These are important meetings because the international system of protection — the 1951 Refugee Convention, whose central aim is to provide protection to those who are persecuted — is being exploited by opportunist individuals and criminal syndicates trafficking in people.

Yes, there are thousands and thousands of genuine refugees, but it is also true that among the hordes sweeping across borders and countries there are large numbers who are simply economic migrants. Or worse, there are those with malevolent intent.

Finding a resolution to this crisis may be near impossible, certainly there is little appetite or prospect of reform to refugee conventions, but an immediate answer in part is for more nations to step up and share the burden of resettling refugees and screening out those who have no genuine claim to protection.

This is why the co-operation of Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Cambodia should be praised, not condemned.