Losing Control: UNHCR and Australia’s Contestation of the International Refugee Regime

An international regime comprises the “implicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors’ expectations converge in a given area of international relations” (Krasner 1982, p. 186). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) plays a key role in the maintenance of the international refugee protection regime (hereafter simply ‘the regime’). Nevertheless, regime formation remains a competitive field and other actors, especially states, are able to shape the debate in pursuit of their own interests.

This essay analyses UNHCR’s success in maintaining control of the regime with reference to Australian policies towards asylum seekers and refugees, especially irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs)[1]. I will begin by briefly outlining the development of the regime in the post-War period, and examining the fraught normative landscape in which it is embedded and the two broad areas in which the seeking of asylum has been constructed as an explicit threat to Australia’s national interest: security and economics. Later, I will examine the ways in which Australia has sought to circumvent the refugee regime and the extent to which UNHCR has lost control over the debate.

The core of the regime is the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines refugees[2], outlines their rights, and provides UNHCR with its supervisory mandate. The Refugee Convention was produced during the post-War period of heightened concern for human rights and protection from persecution, in a context of almost exclusively European refugee flight (Loescher & Milner 2011, p. 190). The 1967 Protocol to the Convention universalised refugee protection and a range of other regional legal instruments have since been enacted, all of which have essentially  “protected” the definition of refugee as initially set out in the Refugee Convention (Canefe 2010, p.176). Australia is a signatory to both the Refugee Convention and the Protocol, entailing responsibilities under binding, treaty-based international law[3].

In any discussion of international refugee law it is important to keep in mind the values and norms that inform it. Albie Sachs (2010, p.47-52), former judge for South Africa’s Constitutional Court and once a refugee himself, argues the “core binding elements [of refugee law] were respect for human dignity and insistence on fairness of procedure and respectfulness of outcome” and identifies a “positive obligation to admit refugees, provide them with asylum and treat them in accordance with specific standards”. The Refugee Convention explicitly links the regime with the United Nations Charter and the Human Rights Conventions, similarly indicating a basis in respect for human dignity and individual worth.

The assertion that states and refugees (as represented by UNHCR) have different and indeed conflicting interests goes to the heart of the tension between order and justice in international relations and the uneasy relationship between established international norms.

For Hedley Bull (1970, p. 90) the granting of asylum to political refugees mitigates the “conspiracy of silence entered into by governments about the rights and duties of their respective citizens”, a conspiracy made necessary by the “basic compact of coexistence between states, expressed in the exchange of recognition of sovereign jurisdictions”. The granting of asylum implies a value judgement on the domestic policies of the source state and may be seen as an affront to sovereignty: indeed, during the Cold War, the West saw the provision of asylum to refugees from Communist states as a convenient means of delegitimising the Soviet model (Betts 2009, p. 55). More recently, Australia’s granting of asylum to 42 West Papuan independence activists in 2006 led to the withdrawal of Indonesia’s ambassador from Canberra (Hyndman & Mountz

2008, p. 261).

The norm of sovereignty is crucial to existing international order, and already sits in uneasy tension with the norm of human rights, despite attempts to reconcile them through concepts of popular sovereignty and responsibility to protect. The pursuit of human rights is, for Bull (1971, p.91) inherently in tension with – even threatening to – currently existing order in international relations.  An asylum seeker on the doorstep cannot be ignored the way human rights or humanitarian issues in a distant country can, and the legal obligation of non-refoulement forces states to make explicit protection decisions that imply a weakening of their own sovereignty and that of the source country. Refugees bring home the porousness of borders in a way few other issues do.

Beyond normative tensions, in the post-Cold War era of surging migration and increasingly complex and protracted civil conflict, states have increasingly seen the management of migration as a core national interest (Betts 2009, p. 54). In Australia, refugees, asylum seekers and especially IMAs have been constructed as a potential threat to the national interest in two broad areas: national security and economic wellbeing.

Securitisation as understood by the Copenhagen School is a discursive act by which the state, or elite groups within it, describes something as a security issue so as to gain control over it and justify the use of measures that would, in the absence of a threat to national security, be unacceptable (Wæver 1998). The issue is shifted outside the usual democratic process, and de-securitisation – a return to more moderate debate  – becomes difficult.

Despite the realities of a highly multicultural modern Australia, the national identity tacks West: the parliamentary and legal systems are derived from Britain, and the United States, through ANZUS, is our most important strategic ally. Despite the security offered by a lack of land borders, the Australian psyche has a deeply embedded sense of isolation amidst heavily populated and culturally distinct Asian neighbours (Walker, cited in Beeson 2003: 114). The arrival of boats laden down with non-Western asylum seekers was ripe for securitisation even before the unhappy coincidence of the Tampa, the 9/11 attacks and a federal election in the latter part of 2001.

Since then, “fear of the uninvited other” has been a permanent presence in the national debate on asylum, and has forced a pronounced shift in focus: the State, not the refugee, is in need of protection (Hyndman & Mountz 2008, p. 253-4). A new culture of reduced transparency about interdiction activities – for military “operational reasons” – points to continued securitisation of the issue (Crabb 2013).

In economic terms, asylum seekers and refugees are often painted as semi-permanent welfare recipients who contribute little to the economy and occupy immigration places that would be better left for skilled migrants (Stevenson cited in Parsons 2013, p. 1). Little data is collected that disaggregates the long-term contribution of refugees from that of migrants, and the research base is subsequently thin (Parsons 2013, p. 2). As a result, public debate is ill-informed and the stereotype of asylum seekers as ‘economic migrants’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ is easily perpetuated by government figures. UNHCR has failed to adequately communicate with the Australian public in an attempt to counteract these stereotypes.

In response to these perceived threats to national security and economic wellbeing, Australia has sought to prevent and deter IMAs. Mathew (2002, p. 665), discussing the Pacific Solution[4], identifies the following potential violations of Australia’s treaty obligations: the possibility of refoulement, discrimination between asylum seekers, detention of asylum seekers, and the prevention of family reunion. The first three will be discussed here.

Refoulement of refugees to a country in which they may be exposed to torture or persecution is expressly prohibited under Article 33 of the Refugee Convention and is a principle of customary international law. This includes chain refoulement (return of a refugee to another country from which refoulement occurs) and, according to various conclusions of UNHCRs Executive Committee (ExComm) and Article 3(1) of the General Assembly’s Declaration on Territorial Asylum, also extends to rejection of asylum seekers at the border (Mathew 2002, p. 666-7). The Adan case found the UK could not send a person back to a country without the “same degree of protection from risk of torture as in the United Kingdom” and Suresh vs Canada highlighted that “diplomatic assurances are not to be trusted” (Simeon 2010, p.10-11).

In terms of international jurisprudence the new Australian government’s determination to “turn back the boats” is, therefore, highly problematic. Indonesia, the departure point for most asylum seeker boats, is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention, although under customary international law it is bound to adhere to non-refoulement. Still, given the realities of divergent state capacities and the existing refugee pressures on both Indonesia and Malaysia, a strong argument exists that refugees or asylum seekers in those countries may not receive the same degree of protection they would in Australia.

Issues of discrimination between asylum seekers are more contentious: the Refugee Convention requires non-discrimination between asylum-seekers on the basis of race, religion or country of origin; the introductory note by UNHCR expands this to other prohibited grounds of discrimination as outlined by international human rights law. Mathew’s (2002, p.669) argument that conceptions of ‘protection elsewhere’ – by which asylum seekers who could have sought asylum in a country they passed through on their way to Australia are not offered protection – constitute illegal discrimination is difficult to sustain given the discrimination is not on the identified grounds. However, she highlights ExComm’s efforts to delegitimise the ‘protection elsewhere’ concept and this is, if nothing else, a clear example of the ongoing contestation between UNHCR and states over the regime.

Discrimination is also displayed in the new “By Boat, No Visa” policy, which denies settlement in Australia to all IMAs regardless of their assessed refugee status. While this policy seeks to tilt the balance in favour of processing from within host countries through Australia’s established Humanitarian Program, the absence of a similar penalty for onshore applicants who have arrived by plane and overstayed visas is clearly discriminatory based on mode of arrival. Although this is probably not prohibited under international law it is arguably contrary to the values of fairness and equality in which refugee law is embedded.

Long-term detention of asylum seekers[5] is more clearly in breach of international law and has been explicitly criticised by UNHCR and rights groups, including the Australian Human Rights Commission (2012, p. 5-6). Article 31 of the Refugee Convention prohibits the imposition of penalties  “on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened … provided they present themselves without delay … and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence”. Here three ‘escape hatches’ may be found to justify detention of IMAs: the protection is extended to refugees not asylum seekers, there is no elaboration on what qualifies as a penalty, and a threat to life or freedom is required to justify illegal entry. As for the first, Goodwin-Gill (2003, p. 193) argues this protection from penalties must be extended to asylum seekers or be rendered completely meaningless: asylum seekers are potential refugees, and have the right to have their status determined. For the second, Nowak (citied in Goodwin-Gill 2003, p. 197) in his commentary on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has claimed that “every sanction that has not only a preventive but also a retributive and/or deterrent character is … to be termed a penalty” (emphasis my own). Offshore detention is part of a policy package explicitly describe by the government as necessary to deter IMAs. As for the third, notions of “good cause” certainly allow for individual consideration of circumstances (Goodwin-Gill 2003, p. 194), which is not to be found under present arrangements. None of these three escape hatches serves to justify policies of long-term detention.

It is certain Australia makes a large contribution to resettlement through its Humanitarian Program, and that loss of life on perilous boat trips to Australia is a tragedy that must be addressed in some way. The Expert Panel commissioned by the Australian government in 2012 concluded some kind of deterrent was in fact necessary, balanced with an increase in the annual offshore intake, a streamlining of the family reunion mechanisms and an increase in aid and technical assistance given to host states throughout the region. This recognises that, short of the enactment of draconian deterrent measures unworthy of a developed democracy that espouses human rights, desperate individuals and families who are unable to lead dignified, safe and stable lives in host or transit countries will continue to risk their lives in an attempt to reach Australia. The policies outlined in the Report of the Expert Panel (2012) seek to deter IMAs within a framework of human rights and respect for the regime, while providing a gateway for increased refugee intake. Nevertheless, the newly elected Abbott government has announced the reduction of the country’s humanitarian intake by 6,250 places a year, to 13,750 (Lake & Siagian 2013) and has pushed ahead with the PNG Solution. It would seem only hard-line policies with a deterrent goal are politically viable.

Australia is not alone: the global North has tended, as a group, to perceive asylum seekers as threatening to its interests and to pursue policies of prevention and deterrence that are clearly adversarial to UNHCR understandings of the regime (see Canefe 2010 for a discussion of EU policies). Furthermore, global North states have encouraged ‘institutional proliferation’, creating new international forums and regional groupings that shift the discussion of refugee issues outside UNHCRs immediate control (Betts 2009). This proliferation is not per se detrimental to the maintenance of a rights-based regime in the form UNHCR prefers; indeed, Canefe (2010, p. 206-7) has stressed that international regimes are necessarily complex creatures: international legal order will never be achieved “by any given set of primary rules” and secondary rules, third-party forums, hybrid organs, and legislative and executive experimentation at the national or regional level are inevitable and important. However, this complexity is potentially detrimental, and current developments demonstrate a “deficit of required political will” leading to undesirable variation (Canefe 2010, p.183-185). Importantly, the regime “requires the engulfing effects and synergy with other accountability regimes such as human rights and humanitarian law and practices that enhance the life chances of outsiders, marginal groups and vulnerable populations at a global scale” (Canefe 2010, p.209). This is certainly not being achieved: tensions between human rights and sovereignty encourage states, via elaborate contortions, to abide by the letter of the law but not the values that inform it, and efforts to shift the focus from the life chances of the vulnerable to the economic and strategic security of the State have been highly successful.

The refugee regime demonstrates little of the convergence of expectations characteristic, for Krasner, of an international regime: UNHCR, individual refugees, host states, donor states and source states perceive their interests in wildly divergent ways and pursue them in different forums and via different interpretations of international law. It is difficult to see how UNHCR could regain control of the regime. Within Australia, the polarisation of a debate in which both sides accuse their opponents of being complicit in deaths at sea, a new climate of militarised secrecy, and a dominant social discourse that paints IMAs as security threats or economic migrants undermines the values on which the entire refugee regime is built and threatens to delegitimise the regime in the eyes of the public. In such an environment, UNHCR would seem to face an insurmountable task.


2012. “Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.” Australian Government.

2012. “Community arrangements for asylum seekers, refugees and stateless persons: Observations from visits conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission from December 2011 to May 2012.” Sydney: Australian Human Rights Commission.

Beeson, Mark. 2003. “American Hegemony: The view from Australia.” SAIS Review 13(2):113-131.

Betts, Alexander. 2009. “Institutional Proliferation and the Global Refugee Regime.” Perspectives on Politics 7(1):53-58.

Bull, Hedley. 1971. “Order and Justice in International Society.” Political Studies 19(3):269-283.

Canefe, Nergis. 2010. “The fragmented nature of the international refugee regime and its consequences: a comparative analysis of the applications of the 1951 convention.” In Critical Issues in International Refugee Law: Strategies toward interpretative harmony, ed. James C. Simeon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Crabb, Annabel. 2013. “Asylum seeker policy: we’re all mad here.” In The Drum.

Goodwin-Gill, Guy S. 2003. “Article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees: Non-Penalization, Detention, and Protection.” Cambridge University Press.

Hyndman, Jennifer and Alison Mountz. 2008. “Another Brick in the Wall: Neo-refoulement and the externalization of asylum by Australia and Europe.” Government and Opposition 43(2):249-269.

Krasner, Stephen D. 1982. “Structural causes and regime consequences: regimes as intervening variables.” International Organization 36(02):185-205.

Lake, Rebecca and Sandra Siagian. 2013. “A call on Australia for asylum-seekers’ human rights.” In Jakarta Globa. Jakarta.

Loescher, Gil and James Milner. 2011. “UNHCR and the Global Governance of Refugees.” In Global Migration Governance, ed. Alexander Betts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mathew, Penelope. 2002. “Australian Refugee Protection in the Wake of the Tampa.” The American Journal of International Law 96(3):661-676.

Parsons, Richard. 2013. “Assessing the economic contribution of refugees in Australia: a review of literature.” Brisbane: Multicultural Development Association.

Sachs, Albie. 2010. “From refugee to judge of refugee law: a tentative introduction to some off-the-cuff remarks.” In Critical Issues in International Refugee Law: Strategies toward interpretative harmony, ed. James C. Simeon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Wæver, Ole. 1995. “Securitization and Desecuritization.” In On Security, ed. Ronnie E. Lipschutz. New York: Columbia University Press.

[1] Many other factors, including UNHCRs own organisational pathologies, can and do play a role in international regime formation and maintenance, but an exploration of these factors is beyond the scope of this essay.

[2] The 1951 Convention as amended by the 1967 Protocol defines a refugee as:

“A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

[3] Certain principles of refugee protection, including and especially non-refoulement, are considered customary international law. This is important for analysis given most of Australia’s neighbours are not signatories to the Refugee Convention.

[4] The Pacific Solution was a package of policies enacted by PM Howard in 2001, dismantled in 2008 under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and recently resurrected by Prime Ministers Gillard and Rudd in modified form as the Papua New Guinea solution. Mathew’s analysis therefore remains relevant.

[5] Short-term detention is allowed for processing and health checks, but long-term detention is only acceptable where a genuine national security threat exists or in the face of a sudden and massive influx (Goodwin-Gill 2003, p. 195)


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