A charter city for refugees?

hkHere is quite a good article seeking to “reframe” the asylum seeker debate. It takes a reasonably moderate, non-hysterical approach.

I haven’t written on the subject recently myself, because I have been feeling a little conflicted. On the one hand, long-time Troppo readers will be aware I have always been of the view that reasonably firm border protection and asylum seeker processing policies are justified in Australia in order to maintain public confidence in our very successful migration program and avoid or minimise social tensions and divisions that would inevitably emerge if the pace of arrivals was greater than the nation could comfortably absorb (assimilate is a forbidden expression). From this perspective the Abbott government has been very successful: it really has stopped the boats (at least for the present).

On the other hand, any policy prescriptions for asylum seekers must meet at least two basic human rights requirements:

  1. Whether in immigration detention or not, asylum seekers must be housed in safe, clean and reasonably comfortable accommodation, with ready access to appropriate health, education and basic community facilities;
  2. Asylum seekers in Australian care/custody must never be returned to the country from which they fled allegedly fearing Convention-based persecution (“refouled”) without a rigorous assessment of the genuineness of their claims to refugee status.  Nor must they be “turned back” to a third country from which there is a real risk they will be refouled. To do otherwise is to risk replicating the appalling saga of the St Louis during World War II.

These are the basic and most central aspects of the Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory. Except for a short period in the wake of the Tampa affair, when the Howard government flirted with “turning back the boats”, all previous governments have honoured these basic Convention obligations.

However, the Abbott government is flouting both principles, seemingly with the tacit approval or at least complete disinterest of the Australian community and much of the media.

Just about all reports of conditions in the Manus Island detention centre suggest that they are truly appalling.  Perhaps things may improve with the replacement of centre manager G4S with Transfield Services, but there is room for skepticism.

As for basic principle 2, Abbott and Morrison’s policy of “turning back the boats” with little or no prior assessment of asylum seekers’ claims is a clear and fundamental breach of Australia’s non-refoulement obligations under the Refugee Convention.  The policy is particularly repugnant where asylum seekers are returned by Australian authorities to the very country from which they fled fearing persecution, as was the case when our navy recently returned a boatload of Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka under a cloak of “on water operations” secrecy.  Morrison and former Labor Foreign Minister Bob Carr may airily dismiss them as mere “economic refugees”, but reputable bodies including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have a very different assessment of the ongoing risks faced by Tamils in Sri Lanka. Whenever Tamils have been able to access credible assessment processes, at least 50-60% of them have been classified as genuine refugees (having a genuine and well-founded fear of persecution for a Convention reason).

Even worse, the “turnback” policy is now being bolstered by legislative amendements, backed through the Senate by PUP, which expressly permit the Minister to turn boats back to wherever he chooses without considering the risk of refoulement:

The bill amends the Maritime Powers Act to expand already broad powers to intercept vessels and detain people at sea. It seeks to exclude challenge to government actions that are in breach of international law, taking aim at pending High Court action on behalf of the 157 asylum seekers detained recently on board the Ocean Protector. …

The power to remove non-citizens would be expanded by a provision that states: “It is irrelevant whether Australia has non-refoulement obligations” in respect of a person; and removal can occur “irrespective of whether there has been an assessment, according to law” of whether protection obligations are engaged.

However, I suspect that the biggest problem with the Abbott government’s current asylum seeker processing regime is a purely practical one: it may not be sustainable because no other country in our region or elsewhere will accept for resettlement any significant number of refugees who sought asylum in Australia (one of the world’s wealthiest nations).  For precisely that reason, the Howard government’s Pacific Solution would inevitably have failed anyway had Kevin Rudd not pre-emptively abolished it in 2008 and made himself the scapegoat for the subsequent resumption of large-scale boat arrivals.  No-one would take the refugees “warehoused” by the Howard government on Nauru and (for a time) Manus Island, and Howard was forced quietly to grant a lot of them protection visas and allow them into Australia. News of this would certainly in due course have reached the people smugglers and their desperate customers, and the boat traffic would have resumed even in the absence of Rudd’s (retrospectively) unwise actions.

Something similar may already be in its early stages for the Abbott government.  Despite reported payments by Australia in the vicinity of $400 million to a notoriously corrupt PNG government (most of it probably in Swiss bank accounts and Gold Coast apartments by now), the O’Neill government has still taken no visible steps to implement a refugee resettlement regime.  Not a single refugee has been resettled in PNG and only one family in Nauru.  There are more than 2500 asylum seekers currently in offshore detention in Manus Island and Nauru, of whom it is fair to estimate that more than half will be assessed (or have already been) as refugees.  There are also almost 30,000 asylum seekers awaiting refugee determinations onshore in Australia, most still in immigration detention.  Will many of them end up being successfully resettled in Cambodia, a country if anything even poorer and more corrupt than Papua New Guinea? Somehow I doubt it. More likely a few will be cajoled into consenting to resettlement but will have dreadful experiences in Cambodia that will result in no-one else consenting to resettlement. It is very likely that Abbott and Morrison will eventually be forced to emulate John Howard and quietly give them protection visas, although probably not until the 2016 election is conveniently out of the way.

The problem with that scenario is that the people smugglers’ “business model” would immediately resume, with thousands flooding across from Indonesia to Christmas Island and more than a few of them being drowned along the way.

A charter city?

Is there a viable and humane alternative? I must say I’m quite attracted by the idea of establishing a refugee “charter city” (cf Hong Kong) somewhere on Australia’s northern coastline.  It was an idea first canvassed by economist Paul Romer as a way for poor third world countries to “fast-track” their way to first world wealth.  As such it has attracted quote a lot of probably justified criticism. However, maybe the idea has rather more merit as a way that a wealthy country like Australia might manage its seemingly insoluble border protection problems by providing real opportunities and “durable asylum” for refugees while avoiding creation of community tensions and divisions or undermining public confidence in the migration system.  Young Australian economist Robert Wiblin suggested in 2009, shortly after the emergence of the explosion in boat arrivals following Rudd’s abandonment of the Pacific Solution, that Romer’s ideas might be adapted to Australia’s asylum seeker situation:

The main insight here is that some of what makes high income countries so rich can be franchised. Rich countries are rich largely because they have large quantities of natural, physical and human capital, access to technology and the expertise to use it, as well as governmental, legal and cultural institutions which facilitate wealth production. Refugees moving to Australia from dysfunctional states would suddenly have access to far more of all of these things, but Australians presumably fear they might also reduce the natural, cultural and physical capital available for those, including themselves, who are already here. If Australians aren’t so enthusiastic about sharing their good luck with refugees, a Charter City administered by Australia could at least allow them access to the governmental and legal institutions which have served Australia so well. By credibly providing those rules in this new city Australia would make it a desirable place for investment, thereby also increasing the residents’ access to physical capital and technological expertise. While migrants to the charter city wouldn’t have access to the cultural and human capital that a new resident of Sydney would have, the close proximity to Australian culture and citizens would be sure to provide at some benefits in these areas as well. Romer is even confident that these cities would be able to pay for themselves and eventually turn a profit for the host country through tax revenue, which would essentially be selling their legal institutions to willing buyers.

The primary difficulty of building a city of refugees from scratch would be putting together the social capital and norms necessary for disparate social groups to obey the law and work together effectively and by so doing attract the investment necessary to build such a city. As Arnold Kling has pointed out:

Paul Romer, in presenting his idea for charter cities, makes it sound as though we can take rules “manufactured” in, say, Canada, and export them anywhere in the world. Leoni would say that instead most law is embedded in social customs In fact, my daughter who just spent the summer in Tanzania, says that the custom of seeing law as something that ought to be obeyed is not nearly as natural there as it is here.

Would refugees from a variety of different cultures be able to produce and follow a common set of laws and norms which would allow them to work and life well together? Would refugees, with little hope of returning home, jump at such an opportunity to start a new life in such an experimental city? If the answers are yes, it is possible Australians could help many more refugees than they would be willing to accept as immigrants to their country.

My own idea for a charter city is that it should be established on Melville Island off the coast north of Darwin.  I’m sure the entrepreneurially-minded Tiwi people would be willing to do a commercial deal for a 99 year lease on a Hong Kong-sized piece of unused land.  The advantage of establishing a charter city in the Northern Territory is that the Commonwealth could readily implement a favourable low tax regime without the constitutional constraints that would apply if it were done in a State. The sort of charter terms that might be considered include:

  1. Much lower and flatter personal and company tax regime;
  2. Very basic but livable social security, housing, education and primary health care facilities, with people being able to access more complex acute care facilities in Darwin when needed;
  3. Only refugees (and NT government employed teachers, nurses, police etc) could live there, and only refugees would be permitted to start businesses there;
  4. Refugees would initially be granted one of Clive Palmer’s temporary Safe Haven Enterprise Visas, but might eventually be permitted to apply for permanent business or skilled migration visas if they established a successful long-term business;
  5. Businesses would be required to pay the Australian minimum wage under the Fair Work Act but would not otherwise be bound to offer award wages or conditions;
  6. Recognition of foreign professional and trade qualifications would be fast-tracked.

I think there is a genuine prospect that such a charter city, if established and fostered appropriately, really COULD develop into a thriving Hong Kong-style entrepreneurial city on Australia’s north coast.  Moreover, with its distinct neoliberal overtones, it might even be the sort of scheme that Abbott, Morrison et al  would see as an attractive option.  I wonder whether any Coalition movers and shakers read Troppo?  Mark Textor, where are you when I need you?

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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24 Responses to A charter city for refugees?

  1. paul frijters says:

    hmmm. Interesting idea and brave of you to suggest an actual place, Ken (your idea?). Melville Island currently only has 1000 people though and they would be completely swamped by newcomers. I never heard of the Tiwi people but I doubt they are going to agree to the complete destruction of their culture by having their island turn into a new Hong Kong, so I am afraid the idea is not practical unless you are willing to simply impose these rules on that Island. Legally possible, I suppose, but not politically: you can just imagine the outcry, the protest marches, etc. Dead in the water, undoubtedly.

    The idea that migrants would actually stay on an Island, or some other confined space, and not move to the mainland as quick as possible is also naive: capable refugees are not going to wait for their haven to catch up in terms of infrastructure and development with the rest of Australia.

    Finally, suppose the scheme would actually work. Melville Island becomes like Hong Kong, with a GDP per capita close to ours and a population around the 10 million mark, unwilling to take in the hundreds of millions who would want to come in, spawning several more such places around the coast. Would Australians actually want that? Inevitably, these places would start to be quite dominant in Australian politics: in effect we would be choosing to fill up by stealth and to turn into a collection of Tiger economies. Maybe good for humanity, but for Australia?

    I like the idea of renting out our governance structures and have in the past advocated doing this in Africa, but doing it so close to home does not sound politically feasible to me. Still, an interesting idea.

    On an aside, what you are suggesting is not really a charter city. The essence is that you are renting out the governance structure we already have to a place that lacks it, governing people that lacked it. We used to call that colonialism.

    • Ken Parish says:

      Fair criticisms, but Melville Island is pretty big*, and you could get a fair-sized city (though not 10 million – mention of the Hoing Kong comparison doesn’t imply that I have in mind something anywhere near that large – at least not for a very long time) on the eastern part of it without necessarily impinging on Tiwi communities which are mostly on the western part. There isn’t anything much that would cause the refugee residents of the charter city to flock to the Tiwi communities, apart from to get a boat to the mainland! It would certainly be necessary to police the straits between Melville and the mainland (and the Apsley Strait between Melville and Bathurst Islands) to stop clandestine boat crossings, but that is a much more confined and manageable area than the huge expanse of Indian Ocean we currently patrol to “stop the boats”. The crocs would happily deal with anyone who tried to swim it! I’m not denying that some people would try to reach the Australian mainland, nor that a few would succeed. However, without any right to any form of social security, health care or any right to work legally on the mainland I doubt that it would be an overwhelmingly attractive prospect. Moreover, when they were caught they could and would be sent straight back to the charter city where they already have “durable asylum”.

      I wouldn’t necessarily assume the Tiwi people would reject the concept out of hand. Twenty million dollars or so per year in rent for the leased city area would be a fairly significant incentive, and that is still less than the Commonwealth appears to be paying to PNG and Cambodia. It would permit an annual “royalty” payment to every Tiwi man, woman and child of $20,000 from this source alone. Moreover, the lion’s share of royalties would no doubt have to go to Melville residents since they would be the ones surrendering long-term tenure in their land and suffering the social impacts to the extent they occurred. I would see every Melville Island family receiving $100,000 or more in annual royalties. I agree there would be lots of problems and concerns to sort through, but I wouldn’t assume they are insoluble or that the Tiwis would not at least be willing to talk about them.

      Finally, I AM talking about a genuine charter city. There would be a lease with the Tiwis (just as there was between the British and China for Hong Kong) and a charter setting out the rights and governance structures of the city residents. It would set out the sorts of provisions mentioned in my post, and also set up a governance structure, including an elected (but initially advisory) parliament with an executive Governor/Administrator appointed by the Commonwealth. Again this is very like Hong Kong. There are numerous different models for charter cities, with varying degrees of autonomy and separation from the state, territory or province in which they are located. I have in mind that decision-making in the city would be largely seaprate from the Northern Territory government, but with teachers, police and nurses provided on a contract basis by the NT until the charter city became large enough to have its own services.

      * To be precise, Wikipedia notes that at 5,786 square kilometres (2,234 sq mi) Melville Island is just outside the 100 largest islands in the world, and is the second biggest island in Australia, after Tasmania (and excluding the continental landmass). If you look at the map that I linked from the main post, you will see that the major Aboriginal communities on Melville Island are all at the western end (although there are some outstations in the east). There is enough room for a quite large refugee city (250,000 or so easily) with lots of separation from the Tiwi communities in the west. That doesn’t mean the Tiwis would necessarily embrace the idea, but it does mean that I suspect the prospect of very substantial ongoing rental payments would probably mean they wouldn’t simply reject the idea out of hand. Problems of social impact could be managed.

      • paul frijters says:

        hmmm. Such a place would really fill up in no time, Ken. 250,000 is peanuts if you reflect that 3 million have just left Syria alone. And once you stop taking people in, you are left with the same problem you have now, except that you have just provided a jumping platform closer to home. So if we would go this route, we should be ready for many millions to come and for the political economic consequences of having open immigration so close to the mainland. And Melville Island looks big enough to house 10-20 million on its own, more if you also count the Island east of it.

        Sure, we could offer the Tiwi population a lot, but someone will whip them into opposition, pointing out the difficulties of containing the new colony.

        And it is a colony. to quote from wikipedia on the definition of colonialism: “Colonialism is the establishment, exploitation, maintenance, acquisition, and expansion of colonies in one territory by people from another territory. It is a set of unequal relationships between the colonial power and the colony and often between the colonists and the indigenous population.”

        This settlement would indeed have an unequal relationship: it is the mainland that sets the rules, that polices who would come in and out, and that would send in administrators who have superior positions over the intended population. That is not just a charter city where all you really do is send administrators and have initial rules, but where you aim for hand-off no-interference over time: it is a whole system of external control and unequal relations that you intend to keep up for 100 years. Opponents could call it a glorified prison-island, complete with wardens and patrolling sharks.

        The idea of setting up something like this much further away from Australia is interesting though because one then truly does not have to do so much policing. Why am I thinking of New Zealand?

        • Ken Parish says:

          “wardens and patrolling sharks”
          It’s patrolling crocodiles. They ate the sharks.

          As for New Zealand, I think I prefer Steve’s nomination of Tasmania. Misery Island sounds like a very suitable location …
          Seriously though, I think you’re adopting a very narrow definition of the charter city concept. Have a look at the Wikipedia entry, not to mention lots of stuff by Paul Romer (see link in main post). I’m not suggesting that a charter city be imposed on the Tiwis by conquest or force of any sort, or that refugees be forced to live there if they would prefer to go elsewhere among a possibly limited range of options. If a deal can’t be done with the Tiwis the government would have to try somewhere else e.g. Tasmania, New Zealand. Mind you, if we’re going to stick with Commonwealth territories (for reasons previously explained) there’s always Heard Island. It’s a bit coolish at the moment, but global warming is fixing that …

    • Ken Parish says:

      Actually come to think of it, combining my concept and yours (“renting out our governance structures” … in Africa) results in a much more feasible concept both politically and practically. Australia should look to do a deal to lease a Hong Kong-sized slab of relatively isolated land in PNG (or for that matter Cambodia), with terms bolstered by treaty, to allow establishment of a charter city (Charteris) within that country. It would solve the problem of keeping the refugees from escaping into the surrounding country which would present a real ongoing issue if the city was placed anywhere in Australia: none of them would actually WANT to escape into PNG.
      The resulting enclave/charter city would be constructed and developed at first solely with Australian government funds and have Australian-style governance stewarded at least initially mainly by Australian personnel (as on Manus Island at present).
      However, the aim would be the creation of a self-sustaining, autonomous economy for Charteris over time. It would have all of the enumerated features listed in my primary post (basic but fair social security etc) along with Nicholas Gruen’s additions of significantly lower than Australian minimum wage rates and low company tax.
      As you suggest, what we would effectively be doing is franchising Australia’s governance model and expertise to a third world country, underwritten by an Australian government commitment to funding to the extent necessary until autonomous economic viability is achieved. Governance/administration would need to be almost wholly separate from the hopelessly corrupt PNG government, but Australia would assure PNG that any net revenue once Charteris became self-sustaining would go to PNG. In the meantime the rapacious PNG pollies would need to satisfy themselves with pillaging the generous annual rental payments we would need to make to lease an appropriate piece of land.
      This adaptation of my concept actually looks a lot more like colonialism than my original concept, and indeed looks an awful lot like Hong Kong, right down to the fact that once Charteris became obviously successful it would probably be necessary to erect border controls to inhibit PNG citizens from migrating TO it in order to access the much greater economic opportunities. At that point Australia might offer to franchise and run the concept (sans refugees) in other parts of PNG as Chinese-style autonomous Special Economic Zones (cf Shenzen etc).

      • Paul Frijters says:

        mostly agreed. You might find this piece interesting: http://www.business.otago.ac.nz/econ/seminars/Abstracts/2012/Frijters23Nov.pdf

        The problem with charter cities, in terms of how Romer advocated them, is that there is no good reason to expect that a city set up with particular rules would actually keep to them: what you really want is the governing capacity of some existing well-run place to extend to another place. For that to happen, the existing place must have a good reason to put in the effort to keep up an overseas dependent (and I am not sure that housing refugees is a good enough reason. The normal reasons were to have a trading port or to grab something like minerals or water), and whomever controlled the intended overseas place previously must be, shall we say, ‘in agreement’.

  2. Mark Textor says:

    Hi Ken

    It’s worthy of debate as a solution to exiting detention arrangements. One big issue that perhaps it doesn’t deal adequately, in my personal view, is the creation of a broader proximity “promise” that would produce a 2nd “pull factor” that in the past has lead to so many deaths at sea. Also not so sure that the mob in Tiwi’s would necessarily be that keen. Why have your Country being defined by this down south?

    • Ken Parish says:

      Yes, I agree that creating a new “pull” factor is the biggest problem with this. It probably wouldn’t be all that great to start with because the place would be small without the facilities or attractiveness or job opportunities of the rest of Australia. But as it began to succeed and grow the “pull” factor would become increasingly great, with the probability that more and more people might journey by boat to seek opportunities in the charter city. Nevertheless, what are the alternatives? I am talking about a situation where the existing (new) resettlement deals with PNG and Cambodia have broken down (or never really begun working in the first place), so that a future Australian government (probably not all that far in the future) is forced to find somewhere else to house the Manus and Nauru detainees found to be refugees. One might consider in that situation that an overt and initially unattractive (from the asylum seekers’ standpoint) solution like the charter city idea would be less of a “pull” factor than covertly granting Australian protection visas as Howard did and hoping that the people smugglers and their customers somehow failed to discover that the entire deterrent structure was just smoke and mirrors.

  3. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for a fantastic post Ken,

    I guess it’s very hard to imagine anyone buying it. It’s a national analogue of going to Carlton and finding that the locals have nabbed all the parking spaces with “Permit Parking Only” on all the street signs. People are happy where they are and don’t plan on moving out of their comfort zone.

    I was pretty amazed that you wanted lower taxes for these people than Australians. In your scenario they’d have lower incomes than Australians for a fair while and we’ve arranged our taxes to be progressive – so they wouldn’t pay much tax.

    I agree that lower capital taxes would be a good way of getting international capital in there.

    But then you want to impose the Australian minimum wage – one of the highest in the world. I’d say you might want to relax that if they’re not very high skill. And instead of the tax cut provide wage subsidies.

    • Ken Parish says:

      “I guess it’s very hard to imagine anyone buying it.”

      I guess you must be right, given that that was the reaction of the first three commenters, all thoughtful people. Hopefully it won’t seem so outlandish after people consider the proposal for a while and work on refining it. In my view it has real potential and isn’t extreme at all.

      I certainly agree with you that a lower minimum wage would probably be a better idea than a low income tax regime. I also agree that a low company tax rate (say 20%) would be a good idea. As you say, that would assist in attracting international (and Australian) capital.

      Not sure I understand the Carlton analogy. I envisage that anyone would be free to visit the charter city (on a holiday “visa”) but only refugees could live and work there, at least initially. If you didn’t have some such restriction you would just get Australian businesses relocating there to take advantage of the low wage and company tax benefits. That would certainly generate opposition from mainstream Australia, which I don’t think would occur if it was a somewhat segregated and isolated outpost far away from the country’s main population centres. OTOH I envisage that Australians (and others) could invest up to 49% in refugee businesses in the charter city (Let’s call it Charteris) and stay there for substantial periods to help manage those businesses. Similarly, I envisage that Australian enterprises providing services that refugees would need to establish their own businesses (e.g. legal, financial and accounting services) would be allowed to establish presences there. Sort of like parking in Lygon Street on a two hour limit.

  4. conrad says:

    If you were the Australian government and happy to more or less bribe other countries as is the case now with PNG and Cambodia, why wouldn’t you just bribe someone else to do it? It would probably be a cheaper solution in the long term than the current expensive solution and cheaper than doing it in Aus. Perhaps you shouldn’t give them good ideas. I can imagine the slogans now “Australia offers $2 billion to Cambodia in foreign aid to help homeless refugees”.

    The other problem is whether the island would be successful. Apart from education levels which might be fixable (or might not, in which case presumably the island would need to be big enough for subsistence farming or some other labor intensive activity), over time, it seems likely that you are going to get groups that basically hate each other in a serious way. For example, if the government finally loses in Syria, presumably the migrant flow will be flipped as other groups get retribution against them. Surely distributing them to different places is better in this respect.

    • Ken Parish says:

      Don’t agree on cost. The existing offshore processing system is apparently costing $1 billion per year. God knows how much more it will cost to actually get Cambodia resettling refugees. I have no doubt that the onshore charter city idea would be substantially cheaper.

      I certainly agree regarding the potential for ethnic strife in a charter city. The difficulties of “engineering” a stable, harmonious culture are discussed in the Wiblin article from which I quoted. You certainly wouldn’t relish housing Sunnis and Shias from the Middle East in the same isolated city. Maybe we need more than one charter city/town?

      • conrad says:

        There should be no cost because it simply subtracts from the foreign aid budget in the same way as refugees who come via boat are subtracted from the total number we take. Strange logic I know, but people seem to like it.

  5. john Walker says:

    Thanks for your article!
    Does Melville island have a reliable supply of water, enough for say 1 million people in the long term?
    Re the Sri Lankan Tamil refugees , why is it that we can not work out something with India? I was only a traveler and may have missed things but as far as I could see Tamils make up a fairly significant slice of the population of the Indian state of Tamil Nadu (and to some degree Kerala) and did not seem to be in a bad way – is it a legal problem or is it that the Indians would prefer not to deal with it, or is it that these Sri Lankan refugees prefer Australia as a destination?

    • Ken Parish says:

      Not sure about sufficiency of water supply for a big population. There’s always desalination if necessary, although of course it isn’t cheap.
      On Tamils from India, I suspect it is reasonable (to an extent) to label at least many of them provisionally as economic refugees (although the article I linked at the beginning of the post suggests accurately that those sorts of labels are simplistic – motivations and imperatives will inevitably be mixed, and even those most desperately fleeing extreme persecution also want to better their economic situation. Who doesn’t? A problem with the Convention definition is that asylum seekers who have found a relatively stable and arguably satisfactory refuge (e.g. Tamils in Tamil Nadu) are still classified as refugees if they don’t have “durable asylum” i.e. secure and enforceable guarantees of basic human rights (especially non-refoulement) and non-discrimination in employment etc. Thus they can validly seek asylum in Australia even though they have been living in conditions in India that many would see as reasonably satisfactory, albeit not completely secure (some have been deported back to Sri Lanka over the years).

      • john Walker says:

        What is the legal status of these refugees in Tamil Nadu? Can they work, access services and so on? (We have over the years lost contact with the friend we made in Kerala- he moved to the UK- so I can not ask him)

        • Ken Parish says:

          From memory they don’t have a legal right to work but in practice many do.

        • john Walker says:

          India had some extraordinary and complex (incomprehensible even to locals) rules on who could do what work. Particularly remember the driver that had to drop our bags at the foot of the three or four steps up to Cochin station, so that the licensed porter could carry them the last 20 feet on to the platform (and get the few rupees in payment) . Also the sharp distinction between beggars that had a certificate showing that they were from a indigenous hill tribe and those (rare)beggars that did not speak “Malayalam”.

  6. I would have thought that land near the Ord River scheme would be the obvious choice. Lots of water, not much use for it, is what we’re told all the time. (Although I see a Chinese company is supposed to do the next stage of agricultural development. I’m guessing there’s still enough water and room for a whole city.)

    I’m not sure how the whole idea is meant to deal with people who become internal refugees to other parts of Australia after race riots, though.

    • Ken Parish says:

      Yes it might be a good idea to have more than one charter city/town, and Ord River area might be a good place for one of them, although it would be harder to stop refugee residents from doing a runner than from Melville island.

      • Oh, I have another idea: anyone who has been on a drive down the West side of Tasmania knows how really underpopulated and undeveloped it is. I’d have to look at a map, but a charter city down there would mean the “runners” might at least be confined to that big island! Sort of fits in with the history of the place, too…

        Hmm, Pieman River looks sort of unused, and seems to have a place at the end called Misery Island. Perfect!

  7. peter says:

    Interesting concept. Wasn’t there a suggestion of a Zionist state being offered in northern Australia post Balfour- pre WW2? Maybe we could brush off any plans that might be lying around in archives somewhere. Melville Island has appeal. Would a navigable port be included? If not an island for all the reasons given, what plans has Rio Tinto got for the soon to be mothballed Gove/Weipa? At least you would have the infrastructure of a modern town available. Re-starting an aluminium plant with some form of cheap energy…peddle power? I guess solar would not be sufficient.
    Anything would be better than the PNG/Cambodia/Bali Process/ UN HCR/Malaysia impasse, but if you could somehow harness whatever international motivation to act on this emigre problem then a charter-come-entrepot city should be examined.
    Incidently I thought Manus/Nauru/Christmas Island were costing us around three and a half billion a year. If so you could do start with such a budget.

  8. Hildy says:

    I like the idea, unfortunately it would be illegal under the refugee convention. (Another reason I advocate withdrawal from the refugee convention).

    Another idea I had for reducing pull factors is to introduce bridging / temporary protection visas, but only as an initial visa. Detention would be reserved for the period of identity, health / quarantine, and security checks – ie longer for those who have thrown away their passports. All services to non-citizens are chrageable, and conversion to an immigrant visa can occur through the standard channels (ie either skilled, family reunion, or SHP) iff the applicant is not in debt to the Commonwealth. Hence there is a strong negative incentive to trying to come by boat (monetary) and once here you still join the queue (but remain on a temporary visa until you do so).

  9. Oliver says:

    I love the idea of charter cities (in theory) and just had this thought myself. I’m not familiar with the legal and political intricacies (e.g. the refugee convention) that would prevent such a plan, so for a more pragmatic question, what steps would have to occur for such a charter city from being implemented? Of course, selection of a location and plenty of negotiation, but if everyone agreed, what would it actually look like going from zero to a year or two in?

    The idea of solving a broad human problem by settling a pioneering new colony is reminiscent of establishing a colony on Mars to protect against existential threats. Of course, settling with refugees rather than exceptionally well-trained astronauts would have far greater unpredictability. I actually think it would make a great premise for an inspirational series of fiction novels, following the lives of a couple of war-torn families as they try to make it in a brave new world. I’d love to read something like that to explore the challenges and novel solutions that would inevitably emerge in such a melting pot. Any authors out there?

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