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Current refugee debate must seek inspiration from the Arab Spring

The movement of people from their countries of origin to another country seeking a more secure and better life is not a new phenomenon and is not likely to diminish any time soon.

The prevailing wisdom in migration scholarship and policy circles is that people move either in a voluntary or un-voluntary capacity. In other words, there are waves of migration driven by purely pull factors in the form of better living standards in economically more prosperous countries.

Forced migrants, on the other hand, are represented as those who usually leave their countries of origin because of push factors  relating to insecurity, oppression, sometimes even environmental concerns.

But this distinction does not change the fact that migrants, either forced or voluntary, undergo similar challenges during the actual time of movement as well as when trying to adapt and settle in a new country.

Focussing more specifically on asylum seekers, the current debate in Australia about off-shore processing and the so-called regional agreement with Malaysia raises more fundamental questions about effective protection than it provides solutions to increased human mobility driven by complex factors not easily reducible to any one of the two categories outlined above.

The dilemma for a country like Australia is that whilst both major parties here are competing for the lowest common denominator in their responses to asylum seekers, smaller much less developed countries like Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon are shouldering a much heavier load of asylum seekers coming from Libya, Iraq and Syria respectively.

In the case of Tunisia which has undergone a massive political transformation itself as the first Arab country to successfully embark on a revolution that kick-started the Arab spring, it was receiving on a daily basis almost 15,000 refugees fleeing the civil war in Libya at a time when its own capacity to provide basic services was severely constrained by its own revolution. Still tens of thousands of refugees are housed in southern Tunisia awaiting repatriation or resettlement.

If a fragile post-revolution state like Tunisia can deal with massive surge of asylum seekers without falling into the hysteria of external invasion and undeserving outsiders, then surely Australia can show a greater capacity to engage in the debate with more maturity and a genuine willingness to work with all concerned. This is not just about meeting its international obligations under the 1951 Convention but more importantly to live up to its own ethical standards as a highly culturally diverse nation that was built by successive waves of immigrants.

The Arab Spring has already led to millions of people leaving their countries in search of safety and basic living conditions. The neighbouring countries, despite their own internal problems, have shown a great capacity and willingness to  accommodate and support asylum seekers from so many different nationalities  (especially in the case of Libya with hundred of thousands of workers from Asia, Africa and elsewhere).

Australia, and other Western countries, should take a leaf from the Arab Spring book and raise  the debate once and for all above the ugly petty politics of border control and undeserving ‘queue jumpers’. Such arguments simply do not hold any longer.

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