The problem with the current debate on refugees and the Government’s policy that no boat arrival will be settled in Australia is that it sees the problem as how to prevent people making the trip to Australia by boat.
As I listen to the rhetoric it seems that boat arrivals are considered problematic on four counts: 1) safety – some of the boats sink and their passengers drown; 2) equity – those who arrive by boat gain an advantage over those in camps around the world; 3) fear – a sense that our societal well-being is threatened by boat arrivals; 4) sovereignty – boat arrivals violate the principle that we should control our migration program.
It is difficult not to be cynical about most of these. Most years we have just as many asylum seekers arriving by plane as by boat, yet no-one is proposing policies that penalise them. This renders invalid the logic of reasons two and four, reducing them to emotive rationales. Likewise reason three, fear, is a visceral rather than rational response as there is no empirical evidence to back it up – in fact the 2011 Hugo report found that refugees add to our economy.
So we are left with only one valid rationale for the rash of political announcements concerning boat arrivals – deaths at sea. The best estimate of these comes from the Monash Australian Border Deaths Database which estimates that since 2000 there were 1575 deaths at sea. With 28,209 boat arrivals in this same period (Australian Parliament House Library) this means 5% of those making the journey to Australia are drowning at sea. This surely is a real concern and something our policy should seek to mitigate.
But by making this the driving policy challenge we have developed a perverse solution. We are exporting asylum seekers to impoverished nations and then selecting the refugees we want from where we want to be part of our humanitarian immigration intake. We have dealt with the first and last policy challenges – ie preventing deaths at sea and providing refuge to a portion of the 14 million of the world’s refugees, but we have abdicated responsibility for the middle portion – ie welcoming asylum seekers, processing their claims and ensuring they find safety.
Moreover we are exploiting PNG. Here is a country ranked right near the bottom of the Human Developed Index. One of two outcomes is likely: 1) asylum seekers sent to PNG will be subject to inadequate food, shelter and safety; 2) asylum seekers will receive adequate food, shelter, job opportunities, etc which will create resentment among locals.
So is there a way we can meet all our obligations and avoid deaths at sea? Yes there is. The vast majority of boats depart from Indonesia, yet we take virtually no refugees from there – between 2001 and 2010 Australia accepted only 560 UNHCR referred refugees from Indonesia (APH library). Given Indonesia has only 3,000 [correction: 8000] or so asylum seekers and refugees (APH library [correction: UNHCR]) we could simply agree to take them all and fly them to Australia for processing and resettlement.
Would this see an influx of asylum seekers to Indonesia? The tyranny of distance makes this unlikely. The vast bulk of the world’s refugees stay in countries bordering their own. Contrary to popular misconception, most do not want to come to Australia, the US or the UK.
This approach may not work, but nothing anyone’s tried so far has, so it’s worth a crack. It allows us to achieve all policy objectives…it just needs a courageous political leader to champion it.