Blog post by Louise Olliff, Refugee Council of Australia *
In 2022, a new global index was launched to assess and monitor countries’ responses to refugees and asylum seekers in an independent and comprehensive manner. The Refugee Response Index (RRI) is a civil society initiative led by DARA that was developed collaboratively over a number of years and initially piloted in Costa Rica and Kenya. The RRI covers each component of an adequate refugee response and can be used in any country context, regardless of size and contribution to the global refugee response. The RRI tool provides a multi-dimensional measure of how a country is responding to refugees and people seeking asylum. The question is: how useful is the RRI as a tool?
Shortly after the RRI was launched, the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA) began coordinating a review of Australia’s refugee response using the RRI methodology. As the national umbrella body for refugees and people seeking asylum and those who support them, one of RCOA’s core purposes is to promote the development of humane, lawful and constructive policies towards refugees and people seeking asylum. RCOA’s objectives align in many ways with the intentions of the creators of the RRI, who suggest that ‘there is a genuine need for transparent and objective data collection concerning state practice on refugee protection issues’ and that, without a global monitoring and data collection tool to comprehensively assess how states contribute to refugee protection, well-evidenced policy and program design suffers. RCOA decided to undertake this review to provide a baseline measure through which future policy in Australia can be assessed, as well as to expand the evidence base to highlight where Australia’s responses must be strengthened or reformed and where there are positive practices that may be useful to reference in other country contexts.
What does the RRI Australia Review tell us?
The RRI Australia Review was completed in early 2023 and provides a clear picture of what is a very complex and challenging policy environment. Although its findings will come as no surprise to those familiar with the Australian context, undertaking this review has brought into stark relief just how inconsistent Australia’s response to refugees is dependent on how a person arrives in the country—by boat or by air, as a resettled refugee or having sought asylum.
Applying the RRI measures has demonstrated the extent to which Australia has fallen short of upholding some of the fundamental principles of the international refugee regime—the right to access asylum (RRI Pillar 1) and for upholding fair legal recognition processes (Pillar 2). In scoring many of the indicators in Pillars 1 and 2, Australia’s response could frequently be characterised as the lowest possible standard. For example, Australia has introduced and funds an entire and extremely costly infrastructure to arbitrarily turn away people seeking asylum, contrary to Component 1.1 of the RRI (Asylum seekers are not arbitrarily turned away). The Australian government has also held in place for many years a policy whereby all non-citizens who are in Australia without a valid visa mustbe detained, regardless of their circumstances. This includes people seeking asylum and refugees whose visas have been cancelled. Moreover, immigration detention can be indefinite. As a result, at the end of 2021, the average time for a person held in immigration detention facilities in Australia was 689 days. For these, and for many of the other problematic areas of Australian policy and practice highlighted in this review, there is much work that continues to need to be done.
At the same time, the RRI Australia Review has also provided a useful reminder to those of us closely engaged in advocacy pursuant of refugee and asylum policy reform, that there are Australian practices and policies that can be commended and recognised for the high international standards for which they promote. This includes how social, economic and cultural inclusion is facilitated for refugees who are given the chance to rebuild their lives in Australia, how refugee self-reliance is supported as a principle and in practice, and how, for the most part, the civil and political rights of refugees are upheld in a richly multicultural country (see Pillar 3 and Pillar 4). The Australian government’s contribution to durable solutions (Pillar 5) and to making the international system work (Pillar 6) are also notable in some regards – such as in its cooperation, engagement and financial support for key global institutions and forums, and in its long-standing commitment to refugee resettlement.
Application of the RRI: Limitations and possibilities
Undertaking a review of Australia’s response to refugees by applying the RRI methodology was a significant endeavour. Applying the RRI methodology to a country context requires making an assessment of over 160 indicators across six ‘pillars’, providing evidence to substantiate each indicator score. To do this, the RRI Australia Team drew on the extensive research, policy analysis, government policies, law and statistical data that exists in the Australian context. Multiple sources of data were sought to allow data triangulation and enhance research validity. For indicators requiring a qualitative assessment or evidence that was not available in the public domain, the views of experts in the relevant area of policy were sought through surveys and interviews.
Determining scores for indicators was not always easy. The RRI indicators are designed to be used in any country context and are not always straightforward to interpret and apply in an extremely complex and variable policy environment such as Australia’s. In many cases, it was difficult to provide a single answer to an indicator. For example, in the pillar that attends to legal recognition processes, it was difficult to provide a single score when there are two separate RSD processes in place in the one country. For some indicators, none of the scores entirely fit the Australian situation, with only part of the statements true. In these cases, the ‘best fit’ was selected and a footnote on variation provided. Some indicators required careful consideration and debate, such as how to understand what exactly constitutes ‘the border’ in Australia when indicators required an assessment of border policy and practices. In an island continent with tightly regulated migration and where externalisation practices are firmly established and well documented, how do we consider and distil the practices of authorities in other states as part of our assessment of the Australian government’s response?
Acknowledging the challenges of applying generalised indicators to a specific country context, it was also a productive exercise in many regards. It provided an opportunity to analyse and present Australia’s response to refugees and asylum seekers in a holistic, comprehensive, and systematic manner, rather than in the policy silos that tend to exist. It also provided a rigorous way to hold policy and practices up to broader international standards. In Australia as undoubtedly elsewhere, there is a tendency to get caught up in the legacy of policies and practices that are always embedded in the specificities of history and place. Seeking answers to questions of policy that are framed from an international perspective at times felt disruptive, to hold what is known in Australia and consider: what could or should this look like?
The potential of the RRI as a global index
While the RRI Australia Review will hopefully be of interest to those who wish to better understand the Australian context and for framing domestic policy reform priorities and alternatives, there is potential for the RRI to have wider significance as a comparative tool were it to be applied to more country contexts. That is, the inherent potential of a global index such as the RRI is that it provides a baseline for measuring, monitoring, comparing and potentially learning from what happens in different country contexts. Whether other civil society actors take up the challenge of applying the RRI to their own context is yet to be seen, but there is certainly potential for more comprehensive cross-country comparisons were the RRI to be applied to other countries’ responses and the results shared.
To this end, it is hoped that the RRI Australia Review is an example of what civil society actors can do to promote accountability of states in their responses to refugees and people seeking asylum. As a small civil society organisation without any additional resources to undertake this review, RCOA was able to draw on internal and external policy expertise and the skills and commitment of a dedicated team of interns and volunteers, to hold up and translate Australian policy and practices to broader international standards. It is hoped that others will follow this lead, and we can look more widely for policies and practices that inspire and that promote more humane, lawful and constructive responses towards refugees and people seeking asylum.
* Dr Louise Olliff is a Senior Policy Advisor for the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the national umbrella body for refugees and people seeking asylum and those who support them. Louise has worked in policy, research and advocacy for RCOA since 2009. Louise also works casually as an academic and is an Adjunct Fellow with the Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative (HADRI) at Western Sydney University. She is the author of Helping Familiar Strangers: Refugee Diaspora Organizations and Humanitarianism (IUP 2022). She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
 Component 1.4 deals with how a country limits detention practices concerning asylum seekers
 The RRI Australia Team included Paula Cruz Manrique, Jennifer Watson and Aníbal González Quinteros, all graduates of the University of Melbourne Master of Development Studies Program and who had previously taken a subject on ‘Refugees and forced displacement in global perspective’
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