The UN-Australia Transition County (UNATCO) plan
for turning the refugee problem into an asset
A different approach to refugees and migrants --David Noel
How to solve an ethical problem and to turn it into an advantage
Ben Franklin Centre for Theoretical Research
PO Box 27, Subiaco, WA 6008, Australia.
Each year, Australia gains new population at a rate which exceeds losses from deaths and people moving overseas. The number of births almost balances the number of deaths (natural increase/decrease), but immigration very significantly increases the population, with net addition in some years as high as 320,000 people (into a total population of 22-23 million). Here is what one source  says:
"In 2003-04, 111,590 new settlers arrived in Australia from overseas. This figure included 51,529 (46.2 %) skilled migrants, 29,548 (26.5%) family migrants, 18,717 (16.8 %) New Zealanders (who freely enter Australia to live and work under the Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement), 10,335 (9.3 %) refugees and humanitarian entrants and 1,254 (1.1 %) others, including former citizens returning to Australia."
Another reference  has more recent figures:
"Net overseas migration (NOM) is the net gain or loss of population through immigration to Australia and emigration from Australia.
Net overseas migration can fluctuate considerably from year to year, and has been increasing in recent years. Estimated NOM peaked at 320,400 for the year ending March 2009. Since this peak, NOM has fallen and the latest ABS estimates indicate that it was about 241,400 at 31 March 2010. This is a 25 per cent fall from its peak.
Currently NOM contributes about 60 per cent of Australia's population growth. NOM has outstripped the natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) in the population since 2005."
Mechanisms to cope with official migration, while they can be criticized, are generally workable and accepted at large. On the other hand, mechanisms for assessing and taking in refugees have been the subject of huge public concern in Australia.
The refugee problem
The seemingly inevitable occurrence of wars and conflicts in many parts of the globe generates refugees, people who are generally desperate to leave very difficult circumstances and start a new life elsewhere.
Australia, with its good standard of living, is seen as an attractive destination by refugees. It is also a favoured destination for migrants, people seeking a better life or wanting to improve their financial position.
The Australian Government does wish to take in migrants with suitable skills and capabilities, as the country is progressing and labour shortages are apparent in many areas of the economy. It seeks to do this in an ordered manner and so that incoming migrants have the best chance of success in their new land.
The Australian Government also accepts its responsibility to take in a certain number of refugees, people wanting to leave their current countries but not able to fulfil requirements for normal migrant entry. Such refugees are often poor and with little education, and perhaps living in desperate circumstances.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen. From .
The biggest public concern is with so-called 'boat people' -- people boarding small boats in Indonesia and other close countries, and sailing to mainland Australia, or more often to distant northern Australian islands such as Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef. Usually these boats are run for profit by 'people smugglers', who may charge as much as $10,000 per person.
Australian coastal watch services try to intercept such boats, and often tow them to 'refugee processing centres' such as the ones on Christmas Island. The journeys are fraught with danger, some boats disappear without trace, and conditions on board are often primitive.
The former Liberal government under Prime Minister John Howard implemented the so-called 'Pacific Solution'. When boat people, "illegal migrants", were caught they were transferred by arrangements to holding camps in nearby countries, such as Papua New Guinea (Manus Island) or the island of Nauru. There they were 'assessed' as to whether they were 'genuine' refugees or not, and after languishing for periods as long as several years, were either admitted to Australia or sent back to the places they were believed to have come from.
Boat people arriving on Nauru when it was used as a processing centre in the early 2000s. From .
Boat people who made it to the Australian mainland were treated differently. Because they had entered the country, albeit illegally, they had access to the courts to appeal against any decision to repatriate them. During lengthy appeal processes, again with some lasting several years, most refugees were kept in barbed-wire-surrounded concentration camps in various parts of the country.
The Howard Government made no secret of the fact that these harsh treatments were intended to deter boat people from attempting to sail to Australia. In this respect it was an effective, if widely unconscionable, measure.
Moral, economic, and social factors
The situation which existed under the Howard government caused huge public disquiet. It was widely regarded as intolerable, on humanitarian grounds, that refugees, including young children, should be shut away in detention camps for periods of months or years, and denied contact with the world. The refugees could not work or earn money, and had minimum conditions and education opportunities. Refugee morale plummeted, and riots and suicides were not uncommon.
Quite apart from humanitarian considerations, the cost of keeping refugees in camps was enormous, as much as a million dollars a year per person in some cases, especially where legal expenses came into play. For the Pacific detention centres, the Australian government was paying huge sums to overseas governments to maintain these centres. In the case of Nauru, which has little local industry, payment for being Australia's jailers was a significant part of their economy.
The Labor Government which followed the Liberals into power, first under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, then under Julia Gillard, attempted to provide a more humane solution to the problem. Most of the local detention centres were closed down, with their inmates allowed into the general community. The Pacific Solution camps in neighbouring countries were closed down, their inhabitants either allowed into mainland Australia or repatriated.
But perhaps inevitably, with the removal of some of the harsher measures of the Howard regime, the flow of boat people has again built up. Facilities within Australia and Christmas Island to assess whether the arrivals were 'genuine' or not have become greatly overloaded, and the present Gillard government is again looking at its own forms of the Pacific Solution, sending boat people overseas for processing. Its efforts here have recently been stymied by an Australian High Court decision that some such proposals were illegal.
The Root of the Problem
What's at the root of the 'refugee problem' ? Australians are a nation of migrants themselves, going far back in their history, and have a relatively high tolerance for people from other lands who are prepared to make an effort to 'fit in'. Official migrants who have come in through screening processes do not often suffer from local attitude problems, although English language unfamiliarity and cultural differences may cause unexpected setbacks, both for locals and migrants.
Problems with refugees in the local community may be far more confronting. If you, and your family, were brought up as cattle herders in a hut in a remote African community without roads or electricity, and you are forced off the land by drought, your skills at fitting into urban Australian society may be very deficient. If you can't read in your own language (only about 10% of rural Afghans are even marginally literate), how will you cope with warning signs in English?
The UNATCO Plan
The UN-Australia Transition County Plan is designed to solve many of Australia's problems in taking in both refugees and less-skilled migrants.
The basic scheme is this. Australia to negotiate a 99-year lease on an English-county-size piece of a nearby country (say 3000-4000 square kilometres, about the size of Kent) to use as a transition facility for refugees and less-skilled migrants. One possibility might be a section of the island of Palawan in the western Philippines.
The Philippines island of Palawan. From .
This Transition County would not resemble a detention centre in any respect, instead it would be more like one of China's Special Economic Zones. It would accept both refugees and voluntary would-be migrants, with the aim of up-skilling and educating them, using their own labour and talents, to a level where they had a better chance of acceptance into more developed society, in Australia or elsewhere.
Here are clauses which would be or standard or essential in such an arrangement:
1. Australia would lease an agreed area from a country in the region, and pay this host country an annual land rental.
2. The Transition County would operate under an Australian-government-appointed Administrator, who would accept guidelines set by the United Nations.
3. Entrants to the Transition County ("Transitioners") would be able, and expected, to work, build, receive education, and other aspects of modern society. Maximum use would be made of Transitioners in erecting housing and other buildings, providing services and amenities, operating businesses, and educating other Transitioners.
4. The Transition County would not be walled off from other parts of the the host country, instead would be like a huge industrial estate where existing inhabitants of the region could live and take advantage of the County facilities if they wished.
Say an area such as part of central Palawan was negotiated for a Transition County. The area needs to be big enough to contain its own airport, and preferably its own seaport.
A possible UNATCO site in central Palawan. From .
The laws under which the County operates, the social services it provides, its financial and taxation system, and its police and courts, could differ both from those of Australia and from those of the host country, although for very serious crimes committed, the laws of the host country might take precedence. In most respects its degree of independence might be like that of an English county, or a Canadian province.
Progression of Transitioners through the system
Under the present Australian system, official migrants are given a Visa or Residency Permit which permits and expects the adult members of a family to work and earn money to support themselves from the time of entry. The process is quite abrupt and one-way, visa holders may be quite restricted as to leaving the country, even for a holiday or to attend to family matters in their own country.
The position of refugees in Australia is even more restrictive. Under the Liberal government regime, refugees might be released into the community while their entry acceptance case was processed, but they would usually be banned from employment and have minimal access to social services.
The conditions in a Transition County would be quite different. There, every Transitioner would be encouraged to become an active member of the local community. This process would be helped by early Transitioners from their own region, who would be expected to welcome them and assist them with learning English and gaining familiarity with aspects of society which might be new to them.
In the initial years of setting up the UNATCO, Australia would need to provide the bulk of the infrastructure needed, including buildings, utilities, teachers, and public service organizations. But as Transitioners were progressively advanced in the system, they would gradually take over much of the operations. For example, in the beginning Australia might have to provide teachers to, say, teach English to Afghans. Later, Afghan Transitioners with English-teaching ability would take over.
Here are some possible progressions and rules which might be considered for Transitioners:
5. Boat people or other 'illegal migrants' would be moved directly to the UNATCO, where they would be encouraged to enter the local community with the help of established transitioners, especially those with parallel backgrounds.
6. Voluntary transitioners would be allowed to enter the UNATCO under their own steam, on deposit of a 'bond' of, say, A$1000, an appropriate amount to return them to their country of choice if the need arose.
7. Each transitioner would be required to provide a DNA sample for future identification purposes at their time of entry.
8. Host country locals or Australian citizens brought in to run administration, that is those without ambition to become an Australian citizen at a future time, would not provide identification DNA.
9. Two years after providing a DNA sample, transitioners could apply to start the process of gaining Australian citizenship ("Application Point"). After application, all members of the transitioner families would be regularly assessed as to their probable ability to integrate into Australian society.
10. Three years after the Application Point, a transitioner would be granted Australian citizenship, if that was still their wish, as long as they had successfully completed three years of suitability assessment.
At this point, a transitioner who had gained Australian citizenship would have a number of options. They would be in a similar position to someone born overseas to Australian parents. Some of them might choose to move to mainland Australia, by this time they would be worthy migrants, sufficiently skilled and sufficiently fluent in English, able to dress and behave in a manner where they could easily integrate.
Others, with a Citizenship certificate in their pocket, might well choose to remain in the comfortable life they had built up in the UNATCO. They would have the option to enter Australia at any future time, just like any expatriate Australian.
Still others might choose to return to their country of origin -- perhaps they had left in a time of turmoil, and their original country had since become more stable and prosperous.
Others, now well qualified and fluent in English, might be 'poached' by other countries -- that would be no skin off Australia's nose.
Then there would be those who had more difficulty in completing the transition process, they might take longer, or much longer, to gain required skills and fluency. Some might just continue in the UNATCO which had become familiar and convenient for them, others might cash in their $1000 bond and return to their original home.
Then there is the matter of host-country locals. After working in the UNATCO, some of them might find ambition to gain Australian citizenship. They could apply, give a DNA identification sample, and sit at the same entry point as a migrant.
Instead of the slammed entry door experienced by current migrants, some of whom, from rather different social circumstances, experience considerable culture shock on entering Australia, the transitioner process could go at its own pace, ripen quickly or slowly, and if it didn't suit, the transitioner could choose another alternative.
Outcomes for the host country
The host country of the UNATCO would benefit directly from the annual lease payment. It would also benefit indirectly from the presence of the Transition County, just as the Special Economic Zones set up by China spread their effects throughout the country, and possibly formed the basis for the current China surge in prosperity.
The host country would also benefit from labour and services supplied to the UNATCO, providing a regular source of income like that some southeast Asian countries enjoy by supplying labour to the Middle East. It might also supply prison services for medium-level UNATCO offenders (high-level offenders would be repatriated). And, inevitably, host country locals would benefit from UNATCO educational and training services.
Outcomes for the Australia
As soon as the UNATCO was in operation, Australia would be honourably relieved of the present problem of What To Do About Boat People. Quite a large initial cost would be involved, but it would be a true investment, delivering a new source of skilled workers. Costs of operation should fall quite rapidly as the UNATCO began to use its own resources.
Rather than effectively being an expensive penal facility, the UNATCO could become an active population centre, eventually with its own universities and research facilities. Not tied to the same entrenched social circumstances evolved elsewhere, it could experiment a little with social engineering trials which would would be unfeasible elsewhere.
Outcomes for the World
At present, both the United Nations and some individual countries put a lot of money into efforts to relieve refugee problems. Much of this money might be more effectively redirected into a Transition County. Other countries, such as Malaysia, with 80,000 refugees within their borders, should welcome a method of relieving their problem by contributing to the UNATCO.
A successful UNATCO might lead to other Transition Counties being set up elsewhere in the world. One of the difficulties in places such as drought-stricken Somalia is the lack of effective government and the difficulty of imposing discipline and administrative structures on an ostensibly sovereign country. A Transition County set up in Africa, through a negotiated lease agreement, would be a means of filling a local control vacuum and improving the lot of nations currently under enormous pressures.
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 Offshore detention could be out of bounds for ever -- Forget the Pacific Solution, says UN. The West Australian, Perth, 2011 Sep 2.
 Google Earth. Application available from Google.com.
 Australian Human Rights Commission. Questions and Answers about Migrants & Multiculturalism. http://www.hreoc.gov.au/racial_discrimination/face_facts_05/migrants.html .
 Australian Immigration Fact Sheet 15. Population Projections.
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Version 1.0 on Web 2011 Sep 8
v. 1.1, 2011 Sep 13
Questions and comments are invited on this plan. Please email them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Contributions selected may be edited for clarity or brevity. Please end your contribution with the way you would like your name to appear, for example "Sally", "Peter Smith", or "Bill Bloggs <email@example.com>".
Sarah: How is it a better way of integrating/ learning English etc, or indeed cheaper (particularly the required Australia staff presence) than on-shore processing within communities in Australia?
Response: It's a better set-up for learning because the required teachers can be employed from transitioners' own background group, providing more familiar conditions. It will become cheaper because teachers can progressively be drawn from more advanced transitioners themselves.
Sarah: Don't you think the host country would object on grounds of asylum seekers trying to enter their country rather than stay in the county?
Response: The whole UNATCO plan is set up on the basis of transitioners doing things voluntarily because it is to their advantage. There would be no advantage to them entering the host country with the aim of claiming asylum there -- they would be leaving an environment where they would be safe and have the chance of improving their lot according to their own wishes.
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