New book on Why human security matters!

We (Dennis Altman, Joe Camilleri and Robyn Eckersley) have just published a book on ‘Why human security matters’ with Allen and Unwin. I have written a chapter with Chris Roche from Oxfam on the importance of bottom-up approaches to security that are both people-centred as well as generated by the people affected by insecurity. Security continues to be framed in high-level and statist terms that underestimate new approaches, new technologies and people movements or organisations that are finding sometimes radical, new ways of dealing with insecurity. Click here to order a copy. The book was officially launched on October 8th 2012 at Melbourne University by former Australian Foreign Minister and President Emeritus of the International Crisis Group Gareth Evans. Read his speech here.

Book Cover

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Refugees continue to face uncertain future in our region

This article first appeared in The Australian newspaper on World refugee day 20.06.2012. This is the slightly longer, unedited version.

World refugee day yearly draws attention to the plight of over 40 million people who are either refugees, internally displaced or seeking asylum and the 800,000, who are newly displaced across borders in 2011. This global population almost twice the size of Australia’s population demands more efforts to support them.

Globally the main source countries of refugees and asylum seekers are Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, together accounting for over 5 million according to the just released UNHCR Global Trends Report 2011. Regionally Myanmar/Burma remains the largest issue with hundreds of thousands residing in regional neighbouring countries such as Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia.

Australia has been a major resettlement country for our regional neighbours for a long time, perhaps most visibly starting with the resettlement of Vietnamese refugees n the 1980s. However, the current yearly scheduled intake of around 13,750 refugees (2010-2011 figures are 13,799) is paltry compared to most other Western industrialised nations. Alone UNHCR resettlement figures show Australia doing its bit with over 9,200 places in 2011 mainly from regional UNHCR offices.

The Bali Process and other regional instruments have hitherto been mainly deployed to shore up Australian efforts to keep asylum seekers and irregular migrants at bay, i.e. trapped within the borders of our neighbours. Yet, a regional solution to what amounts to a regional refugee crisis is paramount.

Such a regional solution will invariably involve sharing the burden of our neighbours and not just the financial burdens. This will involve increasing the yearly intake for resettlement from the region, particularly Malaysia, in exchange for tighter and more coordinated border security efforts with especially Indonesia.

Even though the ‘swap deal’ with Malaysia did not come to fruition, the attention it has cast upon the situation for refugees and asylum seekers there has to be maintained. Malaysia is home to an ever-increasing population of forcibly displaced people, most are from Myanmar/Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi has aptly warned of too much optimism about the political situation in her home and Australia’s move to lift its sanctions regime is unduly rewarding the Myanmar government for minor reform steps.

Thousands continue to flee ethnic and religious tensions, suppression, forced labour and a myriad of other human rights abuses by the Burmese military and a systematic process of marginalization of ethnic groups, especially Christian groups such as the Chin, Kachin and Karen peoples.

Many of them come to Malaysia via Thailand to seek protection. However, The Search: Protection Space in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, The Philippines and Cambodia in Practice, a report released by the Jesuit Refugee Services Asia-Pacific shows that protection spaces in Southeast Asia are insufficient, forcing many to keep moving in search for more adequate and safer refuge.

Malaysia now houses one of the largest urban refugee populations in the region. Some figures place as many as 60,000 in the sprawling city of Kuala Lumpur alone. Many Myanmar minority ethnic groups such as the Chin, a Christian group from Chin state in Northwest Myanmar/Burma, are waiting patiently to be registered by the UNHCR in Kuala Lumpur. This is the most pressing issue for asylum seekers in Malaysia and the region, as the UNHCR card they receive will give them some recognition and protection from the police and immigration officials.

Registration was suspended in early 2010 and funds are urgently needed for the UNHCR and its community partners to resume the mammoth task of registering tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Malaysia alone. Registration is just a first step, but an indispensible one, for it gives refugees recognition and freedom of movement. Those without cards risk arrest and detention, some do not leave the house out of fear.

Once they are registered they have another long wait ahead of them for resettlement to a third country, mostly the United States of America, some European countries and Australia. While some can achieve this transition and resettlement within three years, many have waited a lot longer. Some have been in Malaysia for over ten years. In this time they have to hold down jobs to survive, some have married and started families – all long for a future in which they can take their destiny in their own hands.

In the current limbo they inhabit they face exploitation, harassment and the challenges of everyday life in a country that does not want them and barely tolerates their existence. Yet, things used to be even worse. Detention, whipping for immigration offences and raids by immigration officials have all decreased and there is a cautionary sense of calm amongst some refugee communities.

A critical US report on its human rights situation and the ‘Australia-Malaysia swap deal’ caused the Malaysian government to reconsider its treatment of refugees and asylum seekers. With concerted Australian support and pressure on the Malaysian government and funding of strategic partners such as the UNHCR and community and civil society partners asylum seekers can get better protection. Now is the time to build on the positive improvements and keep the attention and resources focused on those who need it most – refugees and asylum seekers in our region.

The education revolution

It has gotten quiet around the Australian government’s education revolution, the one that includes an infrastructure boost of $16.2 billion and a digital education revolution that brings together the National Broadband Network, information technology and schools as well as laptops and personal computers for secondary school students.

The revolution is said to end this year (total funding of $64.9 billion for 2009-2012). This is a shame, as there was no real revolution – more of an increase in funding for a little while.

New websites that aimed to provide better information and choice to the new consumers of education, such as MySchool.edu.au or MyUniversity.gov.au, have been mired in problems and have had little success in better informing or revolutionising how parents or students decide where to learn and study.

Those revolutions are happening elsewhere. Let’s take a quick world tour of some of the most interesting revolutionary ideas out there. Not long ago the Khan Academy made headlines for its innovative marrying of youtube and tutoring into an ever-expanding resource of short clips that teach people anything from art history to venture capitalism, with a strong focus on maths related subjects.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has for a long time provided open courseware to select courses. These are materials, lecture notes and videos which can be downloaded and read/listen/watch to simulate attending a course. MIT has been joined by an illustrious list of mainly American universities that offer entire or parts of university courses online for free.

Last year a course on artificial intelligence, taught by Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford professor, and Google’s director of research, Peter Norvig, attracted over 160,000 students from 190 countries. Subsequently they launched Udacity.com, which offers free online robotics and internet related courses.

Udemy.com allows anyone to start their own course, whereas other providers maintain some quality control, in terms of allowing only universities access.  For instance, iTunesU, a part of the Apple family, podcasts university lectures, seminars and whole courses (the Melbourne Free University also podcasts there now), and Coursera.org offers a range of university courses run by a consortium of Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania and Princeton.

The defining aspect of this education revolution is technology and its power to make information and content available to ever more people at little or no cost. This is an important step in leveling the playing field in global education and the sharing of knowledge in times of globalisation. But there is still something missing in this type of education, which is the dynamic community of learners that extends beyond a mere learning space.

Two years ago a group of us started a much smaller and less ambitious project – to bring free higher education to Melbourne. Thus our endeavour is more in line with the free schools/university movement of the 1960s than the technological transformations of online learning. Our principles and ideas are lodged more firmly in the present and the community within which we operate.

Being grounded is a good thing, but also a limiting factor. Our courses are available in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne, our intellectual and physical home, and thus limits our ability to extend our free educational offerings. We tried to ameliorate this by podcasting lectures, but expansion is not what we are really about.

What the open courseware and free iTunesU lectures cannot provide on their own is the intellectual exchange and transformation of dialogue that characterise our sessions, which are built on an equilibrium between talk (monologue) for 45 minutes and discussion (dialogue) for 45 minutes.

We don’t aim to teach others, but allow everyone a voice within the learning space where teacher and taught (ideally) dissolve into equal partners working together. Within months we were receiving emails from people around Australia and abroad urging us to set up free unis in their hometowns.

We were flattered, but again, that is not what we, the Melbourne Free University, are about, we replied. Our rootedness in the community is an integral part of our charter and thus we encouraged others to start their own free universities; each community is different, and free universities need to respond to the particularities of their own communities.

To support them, we have written a short guide on ‘How to Start a Free University,’ which shares what we have learned over the past two years about starting and running a free university.  It is not a step-by-step guide, but explores the issues people need to consider when setting up a free university, details our successes (and failures), and shares reflections and feedback from participants and others involved.

Let the revolution begin.

The Melbourne Free University has just celebrated its second anniversary and the launch of its guide on ‘how to start a free university’. The guide is available for free to download at http://melbournefreeuniversity.org/downloads/MFU_How_to_Start_a_Free_UNI_manual.pdf .

On Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia

Interfaith dialogue in Malaysia is important, if not a prerequisite step to ameliorating societal tensions in Malaysia. However, I would argue that interfaith dialogue is itself problematic on two counts. The first difficulty is that only people of faith (usually narrowly defined as adherents of an Abrahamic faith plus a few major other traditions/religions) are invited. The other is that those invited are often from the moderate wings of religions and are thus more likely to be able to find common ground and be open to the discussion of interfaith issues. This, however, means that these meetings are largely marginal and, in the Malaysian context, not representative of wider society.