This year’s high-level ministerial meeting of the Bali Process pointed the way towards truly cooperative regional policies to deal with the causes of forced migration, while respecting the dignity of migrants fleeing their home countries. Observers could be forgiven for believing that this progress is unlikely to be reflected any time soon in the policies of member countries. But could the challenges faced by Australian policy-makers, as the Pacific Solution unravels, create an opening for change?
The Bali Process is the key diplomatic forum in which Australia and forty-three other countries in the region discuss the challenges posed by forced migration from countries in the region and beyond. Members themselves describe the Bali Process as “a voluntary, inclusive, non-binding forum for policy dialogue, information sharing and capacity building.” Established in 2002, its full title is the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the International Organization for Migration, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime are also members, and other countries and agencies participate when appropriate.
Although ministerial meetings are usually held every two years, this March’s meeting was almost a year late. It was perhaps no coincidence that relations between the Bali Process co-chairs, Indonesia and Australia, had been strained during that time by Australia’s incursions into Indonesian waters during boat turnback operations, and Indonesia’s execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran for drug offences.
The region had also faced a refugee crisis that left up to 8000 Bangladeshi and Rohingya people stranded on boats in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. Abandoned by people-smuggler crews who feared Thai government law enforcement, these thousands waited, many perishing, without basic food, water and medical attention, while surrounding countries delayed humanitarian assistance and asylum.
Not surprisingly, those tragic events were among the matters discussed at this year’s meeting, which commissioned a review to “share lessons” and “work to implement necessary improvements.” Led by Australia and Indonesia, the review will consider “options for improving national, regional and subregional contingency planning and preparedness for potential large influxes of irregular migrants in the future.” Its timing is still unclear.
The ministers also acknowledged the “unprecedented levels of displacement and mobility seen globally since the last ministerial conference,” and adopted a declaration reinforcing member countries’ commitment to tackling “complex challenges.” Many of the meeting’s recommendations focused on preventing future maritime crises (and associated loss of life) and tackling the underlying causes of forced migration.
Ministers directed member governments to consider their responses to people arriving by boat, giving priority to coordinating procedures for rescue at sea, identifying predictable places for disembarkation, improving reception and screening systems, and engaging civil society in delivery of post-disembarkation emergency assistance. They also recommended research into temporary protection and local-stay arrangements.
Significantly, the meeting agreed on a special mechanism to enable the Bali Process co-chairs to consult, and where necessary convene future meetings, to consider “urgent irregular migration issues with affected and interested countries in response to current regional issues or future emergency situations.” According to Peter Hughes, a former deputy secretary of Australia’s immigration department and now a fellow of the Centre for Policy Development, this mechanism “provides a vital avenue for the Bali Process to make a difference in responding to mass displacement.” The fact that countries agreed to this special mechanism corresponds to their acknowledgement at the meeting of the need for more “agile, timely responses.” Attendance at meetings called by the co-chairs will be voluntary, and the impact of this mechanism remains to be seen.
Ministers recognised the importance of “providing basic protection for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers” and of “inclusive socioeconomic development, full respect for human rights and measures to reduce statelessness.” Underlying ministers’ statements is the view that unless humanitarian and protection needs are met, “people will continue risking their lives on smugglers’ boats.” Their decision to extend the focus of policies to migrant protection is significant; in the past, Bali meetings have been preoccupied with legal responses to people smuggling and human trafficking (and especially their criminalisation).
The meeting welcomed long-term solutions for refugees in the form of the “provision of resettlement places” and “appropriate local solutions.” A toolkit to improve systems for registering births, deaths and marriages is also being developed and countries were encouraged to participate in order to “enhance the capacity of states to identify and provide protection to at-risk populations.” Regional information campaigns are being developed to highlight the dangers of irregular boat journeys.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, ministers recognised the need to expand “safe, legal and affordable migration pathways” as an alternative to journeys facilitated by people smugglers. Member governments were encouraged “to consider how labour migration opportunities can be opened up to persons with international protection needs.” Family reunification programs are another possibility. The declaration also referred to “exploring viable temporary migration schemes.” An Australian Human Rights Commission report released in September this year also advanced options to “expand opportunities for safe entry to Australia.”
While the trend of the March meeting is positive, the devil will be in the implementation – if it occurs at all. Recent history tells us that the Bali Process has not resulted in significant protection-focused policy initiatives among its members. A 2011 Regional Cooperation Framework, agreed to by all Bali Process members, expressed the clear need for “practical cooperative solutions that also address humanitarian and protection needs,” but even five years later the framework has not been translated into national policy in Australia or other member countries.
Australia’s processing and detention arrangements with Nauru and Papua New Guinea are inconsistent with the protection-centred approach to which it is committed under the Bali Process. In their recent book Refugees, Regionalism and Responsibility, Penelope Mathew and Tristan Harley explore this policy contradiction, pointing out that “Australia has inverted the moral responsibility for resettling refugees by sending asylum seekers to developing countries in order to evade the hard legal obligations of allowing unauthorised boat arrivals to seek asylum in Australia.” Further evidence that governments in the region may not truly be committed to protection sentiments expressed in Bali Process meetings can be seen in the lack of effective, immediate response to last year’s crisis in the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea.
In mid 2015, the Refugee Council of Australia, the peak body for organisations representing refugees in Australia, argued that “large multilateral forums like the Bali Process are unlikely to provide any significant impetus for change in the region.” Will things be any different after governments have had the opportunity to implement the commitments they signed up for at this year’s ministerial meeting? Recent history suggests not – though one key difference this time around is that Australia’s Pacific Solution is unravelling. With Canberra forced to look for alternative policies, it’s not unthinkable that one day soon the Bali Process may be taken seriously as a means towards an alternative policy. •