Through bringing together key researchers and regional refugee support agencies, this workshop will explore current research on the impacts of Australian policies on aylum seekers and refugees, governments and civil society in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka since the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders. It will also identify where further research is needed. Outcomes will include a paper that outlines what is currently known about the regional impacts of these policies which will be widely distributed. The papers presented at the workshop will also be published in a special edition of Cosmopolitan Civil Societies (Issue 2, 2016). This workshop will make an important contribution to further understandings of the regional impacts of Australian asylum seeker policies.

Workshop objectives:
• To explore what is currently known about the impacts of Australian policies on asylum seekers and refugees*, governments and civil society in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka since the commencement of Operation Sovereign Borders.
• To identify where research is needed to further understand the impacts of Australian policies in these countries.

This workshop is very relevant to current social science research and policy. It will make an important contribution to further understandings of the regional impacts of Australian asylum seeker policies.

Australian policies in response to asylum seekers who arrive by boat have been highly politicised and long focused on efforts to deter the arrival of others. While the election of the Labor Government in 2007 saw the reversal of some of these policies, such as the closure of offshore processing centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island, in recent years these policies have been re-introduced. Since the election of the Coalition Government in September 2013 and the commencement of “Operation Sovereign Borders”, further measures aimed at intercepting and deterring the arrival of asylum seekers via maritime routes have been implemented. This includes the allocation of A$67 million to support joint operations with Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka to disrupt people smuggling activities and increase intelligence operation (The Coalition 2013). It also includes the turning back by Australian naval personnel of 383 asylum seekers on twelve boats, mostly to Indonesia, and the prevention of the arrival of 45 other boats with the assistance of authorities in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (Griffith 2014).

Operation Sovereign Borders has severely limited the flow of asylum seekers arriving to Australia by sea. This provides an opportunity to reflect on the implications of this for asylum seekers and refugees, governments and civil society in key regional countries. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the number of people displaced globally and regionally has not reduced. At the end of 2013, 51.2 million people including 16.7 million refugees were forcibly displaced, six million more that reported in 2012. In the Asia and Pacific region, the total number of people in a refugee-like situation was estimated at 3.5 million at the end of 2013 (UNHCR 2013).

The impacts of Operation Sovereign Borders on asylum seekers, governments and civil society in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka will be the focus of this workshop. This recognises that many asylum seekers spend time in Indonesia and Malaysia before traveling to Australia by boat, and many others have arrived to Australia from Sri Lanka. It also reflects the allocation of Australian funds to these countries as outlined above.

Refugee support agencies in Indonesia and Malaysia report that increasing pressures are being placed on their services as asylum seekers face much greater barriers to travelling to Australia by boat. Instead they remain in what were previously transit countries with minimal support from refugee agencies and governments. Agencies in Indonesia report that some asylum seekers have attempted to gain access to detention centres in order to secure food and shelter (Bachelard 2014a; Dodd 2014). Other reports indicate that asylum seekers continue to arrive to Indonesia one year after Operation Sovereign Borders commenced (Bachelard 2014b). Agencies in Malaysia highlight that since November 2013 the UNHCR has been unable to secure the release of asylum seekers, other than those from Burma, from Malaysian detention centres (Health Equity Initiatives). Human rights organisations and refugee support agencies in Sri Lanka raise serious concerns about the mistreatment of asylum seekers who have been returned by the Australian Government (Corlett 2014). To date, however, there is no published research that documents and explores these concerns.

This workshop will adopt a multidisciplinary human rights framework to explore the impacts of Australian policy. Human rights are commonly understood as those rights enshrined in United Nations (UN) conventions and declarations that articulate what is necessary for individuals to live a life of dignity. As reflected in the two UN Covenants, individual rights are often categorised into civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights. Individual claims of human rights are usually made against the state. However, often the state is responsible for human rights violations within its borders, as well as sometimes outside of its borders. This leaves refugees, those that flee their state and cannot return due to a well-founded fear of persecution, in a particularly vulnerable situation. Given that refugees cannot secure the protection of the state in which they were born or held citizenship, they are forced to rely on other states for the protection of their human rights.

A human rights framework enables the impacts of state policies on individual asylum seekers to be elevated. In contrast, Operation Sovereign Borders prioritises border protection and national security concerns, and criminalises the movements of asylum seekers by boat. There is little attention given to the impacts on the individuals most affected by policies within such a framework. Alternatively, the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network (APRRN), the peak refugee body comprised of members of key agencies and academics throughout the region, outlines a regional protection vision with principles that centre on asylum seekers themselves. These include freedom from violence and abuse, access to essential services and livelihoods, legal protection, access to durable solutions, self-sufficiency and partnerships for a supportive operating environment (APRRN 2014). These principles reflect civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights.

The focus of the workshop reflects an APRRN research priority. APRRN members include representatives of Amnesty International, Jesuit Refugee Service Indonesia, Health Equity Initiatives Malaysia, SANRIM Lakshan Dias Associates Refugee Lawyers in Sri Lanka and Refugee Council of Australia, and academics who conduct research in this area. In this workshop, these members will join other academics and representatives of non-government organisation and UNHCR to discuss existing research and reports that document the impacts of Australian policies in Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka, and identify where research is needed to further understand these impacts. Academics will represent a broad range of social science disciplines including human rights, refugee studies, international relations, anthropology, sociology, criminology, law and psychology, as well as public health and mental health nursing.

* The term asylum seeker refers here to a person who arrived to a country of asylum but whose refugee status is yet to be determined. According to the United Nations (UN) Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Refugee Convention), a person is found to be a refugee if it is considered likely they would face persecution in their home country due to their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.


APRRN (2014) ‘APRRN Vision for Regional Protection’, June,

Bachelard, Michael (2014a) ‘Asylum seekers beg for detention so they don’t starve’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 April,

Bachelard, Michael (2014b) ‘Most know the boats have stopped, but asylum seekers keep coming to Jakarta’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 11 September,

The Coalition (2013) The Coalition’s Policy for a Regional Deterrence Framework to Combat People Smuggling, August,;fileType=application%2Fpdf#search=%22library/partypol/2686733%22

Corlett, David (2014) ‘Turned back to torture’ SBS Dateline, 31 September,

Dodd, Andrew (2014) ‘Stopping the pull factors: asylum seekers in Indonesia’ ABC Radio National Law Report, 22 July,

Griffith, Emily (2014) ‘Immigration Minister Scott Morrison confirms 12 asylum seeker boats turned back since the start of Operation Sovereign Borders’ ABC News, 18 September,

UNHCR (2013) UNHCR Global Trends,

For more information, please contact:
Mrs Nurdan Kulluk-Rennert
Manager, Executive and Workshops
Nurdan.Kulluk-Rennert [at]
+61 .2 62491788