A Rohingya refugee at Kutupalong refugee camp in Bangladesh’s Ukhia district on 5 April, 2018. Photograph: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images
The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, says “like-minded” countries should come together to review the relevance of the 1951 United Nations refugee convention, arguing the document is outdated and does not account for the modern movement of people.
In a wide-ranging interview with Guardian Australia conducted on Tuesday, Dutton flagged a reluctance to allow the elderly family members of immigrants to come to Australia, and a desire to incentivise new arrivals to move to regional communities. He also reaffirmed the country’s commitment to a nondiscriminatory immigration policy.
Dutton said he agreed with statements made by the British prime minister, Theresa May, and others suggesting the UN convention relating to the status of refugees could be modernised “or at least an update of the way in which the convention works and what it provides for”.
He said countries’ efforts to resettle refugees were “token” given the numbers of displaced people, and argued offering support to refugee camps would be more effective than resettling a small portion of the refugee population.
“I’ll use the example of Syria, where we were one of the most generous nations by taking 12,000 [people],” Dutton said.
“Plenty of countries promised places but never delivered. We offered 12,000 permanent places in addition to what we were doing within the refugee humanitarian program. So there are 5 million people who are displaced in Syria, so the question is whether any country would be able to provide a safe haven for those people.
“Clearly, given the current commitments from the US, from Canada, from European nations, Middle Eastern states, it’s not possible for those 5 million people to be relocated.
“Providing a greater focus on support, particularly around education for young women, young boys, living in camps like Zaatari [in Jordan] is in my judgement a better way of providing that humanitarian assistance than what some people describe as token efforts of 12,000 out of 5 million people.
“I think there is a need for like-minded countries to look at whether a convention designed decades ago is relevant today.”
Madeline Gleeson from the Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at UNSW said resettlement was not “token” for those who benefitted from it.
“It can be a lifeline – offering protection to vulnerable people in urgent need of it. It provides an alternative to dangerous onwards journeys, including by sea. And it is an important way for countries like Australia to demonstrate solidarity and responsibility-sharing with those countries that host the greatest numbers of refugees. While it may not be a perfect system, the way to expand its benefits is by offering a greater number of resettlement places and supporting complementary programmes such as community sponsorship, not by diverting funds elsewhere.”
Gleeson said refugee protection was not a dichotomy of resettlement or international support.
Financial and humanitarian support for host countries by providing services in refugee camps overseas was critically important, and more funding from Australia would be welcomed.
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