I opened the Australian newspaper today to read a vigorous defence of the government’s policy of turning back boats filled with asylum seekers. Australia has not only succeeded in stemming the flow of people coming by boat to Australia, we have apparently also reduced the flow of refugees into Indonesia, and saved people from drowning at sea. This would be true if we could be confident that those who were seeking to come to Australia by boat instead opted to go somewhere safer. Unfortunately, it appears that that is not the case.
The chart below shows the number of asylum applications lodged in industrialised countries since January 2013. That is, it shows applications lodged by people who have shown up to a country whether by boat, plane, motor vehicle, or on foot, and sought asylum. The data is drawn from statistical tables provided by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees.
A number of things strike me as I look at the chart.
First, the number of people lodging asylum claims in Australia has declined substantially. This is partly because we’ve turned back boats ( i.e. people have sought to come and we have turned them away), partly because we deny those who do arrive the opportunity to claim asylum ( i.e. we detain them on Manus Island or Nauru and deny them the opportunity to apply for asylum in Australia), and partly due to a decline in the number of boats that set out from Indonesia.
Second, our preoccupation with the threat presented by asylum seekers seems ridiculous when you look at the low numbers we have arriving relative to Europe, Canada and the USA.
Third, the number of people who have fled persecution in their homeland to seek asylum in an industrialised country is growing quite rapidly. Moreover, for the period covered by the chart the primary source of asylum seekers has been Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This suggests that our policy has most likely not succeeded in preventing people from seeking asylum in another industrialised country, it’s just shifted the burden from us to Europe. It is possible that the number of people seeking asylum would be even higher without Australia’s deterrence policy, but I consider this highly unlikely. Research suggests that those fleeing persecution rarely choose a destination beforehand, but go to those places suggested either by existing networks or migration agents/people smugglers*. That is, the decision to flee is driven by “push” factors, while “pull” factors do appear to play a significant part in determining where people seek asylum.
Fourth, we could potentially justify this decision to push the burden onto Europe on the grounds that it’s a safer journey for asylum seekers to make. Unfortunately that doesn’t appear to be true either. A report published earlier this year suggested that since the year 2000 more than 22,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean while seeking to flee to Europe**.
The inescapable conclusion seems to be that we’re a nation of asylum bludgers, that we’re quite happy to shirk the responsibilities both legal and moral that we have previously owned, and to let others shoulder our share of the burden.