Olivia Papagni – University of Adelaide – Adelaide Hub Delegate

The trend for policy makers to militarise borders or enhance security patrols along borders as a means of combating immigration has caused humanitarian concerns and questioning over the validity of such militarisation in the prevention and mitigation of migration flow. While it is acknowledged by the Australian Department of Defence that Australia must evolve and adapt to adequately meet the changing strategic environment, the middle power continues to follow in the footsteps of the US and Europe in putting forth policies that fail to consider and account for the root causes of migration whilst drawing in controversy around its operations. When considering Australia’s position on the world stage and within its immediate Indo-Pacific region, Australia simply cannot afford for the threat this poses for its national and foreign security and economic interests.

Being a middle power (which has been a paramount focus in Australia’s foreign policy discourse for over 60 years) means that Australia cannot simply control the Indo-Pacific or dominate the world stage, but rather seek to shape and influence the region through the mitigation of conflict and construction of consensus and cooperation. When considering how Australia aims to strengthen economic and security interdependencies and to forge diplomatic bonds and strategic connections within its immediate region, reputation is key for Australia in maintaining an international order which protects and advances its security interests. Australia’s reputation has been called into question considering how its immigration policy has been a focal point of controversy and humanitarian concern in recent years, due to the establishment and continuation of offshore detention centres and related operations.

Political cartoon by cartoonist and illustrator Simon Kneebone

Reports of medical care often being non-existent; difficulties in detainees getting access to legal institutions; and the humiliation that comes with the physical transfer to these militarised, “prison like” facilities, only scrapes the surface of concerns raised by national media and international legal bodies over a policy simply riddled with controversy. Various human rights organisations have condemned Australia’s militarised immigration policies for its appalling human rights record, often labelled as ‘state-sanctioned…child abuse’, and in particular by the United Nations (UN), as centres that constitute cruel punishment for its increasingly violent and unsafe offshore detention centre environments. Evidently, Australia’s disregard for its international law obligations does not sit well with its middle power status, and for good reason. Australia relies on being able to influence international bodies like the UN and Indo-Pacific political-security organisations and forums such as the East Asia Summit; the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Defence Ministers Meeting; and the ASEAN Regional Forum, to exercise power and exert influence over decision making processes and outcomes. Australia simply cannot expect to maximise and wield influence in these aforementioned multilateral organisations and engage in a rules based international order if it does not abide by its own proposed ‘Free and Open’ Pacific order or the rules that come with subscription to these international forums and organisations.

Political cartoon by Cartoonist and Illustrator Peter Broelman

So how can Australia expect to maximise its centrality in its immediate, increasingly changing environment in a way that lowers migration rates through humane immigration policy?

Instead of militarisation, the Australian government should look to initiatives akin to those in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that seek partnerships for recovery and humanitarian assistance aimed at alleviating suffering and maintaining human dignity. Aid that increases governance resilience to crises through buildings confidence in state institutions has been better associated with governance aid rather than economic aid in reducing emigration rates from developing countries. In particular, an analysis of cross-national times-series data that covered 101 developing countries over twenty-five years (1985-2010) found that governance aid in support of the rule of law, human rights and quality of governance lowers immigration rates from developing countries. As a result, political push factors that motivate individuals to emigrate are alleviated by governance aid for its improvements in the political and economic wellbeing in source countries. This is most notably through the enhancement of political rights and improvement in political institutional capabilities to foster democracy and state transparency. Government efforts such as state-institution and governance building aimed to assist source countries (of which a significant amount come from within the Indo-Pacific) can build confidence not only in countries’ respective national institutions but also in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific agenda. Australia should aim for a new migration policy that recognises the role of the state and structural forces in influencing the volume and composition of migrants. In this way, the root causes of migration can be addressed. It is paramount that Australia adjusts its defence posture and priorities to adopt a regional perspective in formulating not just a more effective, but also humane response to migration.

One can only hope that the new government seeks to carve out a strategy towards migration that is respectful of human rights and dignity, reinforcing how Australia need not defence to strengthen its relationships with international partners in support of shared security interests. It is in the best interests of the nation and to migrants who seek political refuge, that the next government’s next Universal Periodic Review report to the United Nations and similar human rights reviews demonstrates Australia’s potential as an effective and trustworthy bargaining power through its commitment to humanitarian aid and concern for the quality of life abroad.