"We can't take them all": defending our refugee policy

The world's refugee crisis has resulted in some 60 million displaced people mostly due to conflict - in particular in Syria but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Albania, Sub-Saharan Africa, Iran and Ukraine.  The Western world has become the destination for many of these refugees, fuelling a sense of panic, resistance and hostility towards them in many of its countries.

We in Australia are experiencing a small fraction of this crisis, as some of the refugees make their way around the world, enduring perilous voyages across rough seas in rickety boats to reach our shores.  We have responded either by turning back the boats or imprisoning the refugees (in deplorable conditions) in offshore detention camps on Manus Island and Nauru, and promising never to allow them the right to settle in Australia (or New Zealand, for that matter!).

We have a government that is campaigning at the very moment on its proud achievement of having "stopped the boats".  At the same time, the government boasts that it has reduced to zero the number of deaths by drowning in those rickety boats.

The bipartisan adoption of this policy should tell you that it has broad appeal among our voters. Indeed, both major parties are adopting the same hard line in tomorrow's federal election, although only one side - the Coalition - can claim to have succeeded in "stopping" the boats completely (a short-term "softer" approach by Labor in the late 2000s is widely seen as having "encouraged" a resurgence of boat arrivals).  Certainly both sides now have a more or less identical policy platform as regards refugees, with the Coalition having adopted Labor's "offshore detention" programme (the so-called "Pacific Solution").

So how did we stop the boats"?  Very simply.  We made an example of those who dared seek asylum here.  We then sent advertisements back to their home countries warning further asylum seekers not to bother trying to come to Australia.

We have treated those who arrived here with great cruelty in order to deter others from seeking our help.  It hasn't mattered whether they have been men, women or children.  All have gone to indefinite imprisonment without charge, never mind trial or conviction.

The cruelty has been so great it has led some to self-immolate (ie. burn themselves alive).  We haven't even cared enough to provide appropriate, timely medical care (it's their own fault after all).  Others have gone on hunger strikes, sewn their lips together or doubtlessly tried to self-harm in myriad other ways.

In truth, we may never know much about what has happened to refugees attempting to seek asylum in Australia.  Because boat turn-backs have become confidential military operations while the conditions in the detention centres are shrouded in secrecy.  We get a few reports of the critical state of asylum seeker mental health on both Nauru and Manus.  And we know that Australian workers in those centres are suffering their own post-traumatic stress based simply on what they are seeing on a daily basis.  But otherwise we, the Australian public, are not permitted to know anything - presumably lest we get "misty-eyed about this".

Because hey, it's all justified isn't it?  When it comes to refugees "we can't take them all".  If we relaxed our policy (as the foolish Labor government did in the late 2000s) we'd be "swamped".  Our infrastructure wouldn't cope.  Our culture would be overwhelmed.  Punishing a few innocent people (and everyone is entitled to a presumption of innocence) is a necessary means to stop these "illegal economic migrants".  Besides, we've stopped so many drownings at sea.

But something is wrong with this whole analysis.  And this should be obvious from a single fact:

Our nearest neighbours - Indonesia, East Timor and Papua New Guinea, have a combined population exceeding 260 million people.  The bulk of this population is desperately poor.  They are only a relatively short boat ride away from us.  Why aren't they streaming across the sea in their millions as illegal economic migrants?

Well here's the obvious answer: maybe it's because no one is trying to "bomb them back to the stone age".  Maybe, just maybe, people who aren't facing war or famine just tend to stay where they are, regardless of less than ideal economic circumstances - even grinding third world poverty.

But why would that be?

The answer is to be found in one word: inertia. Most people in the world still die in the city in which they were born. The bulk of humanity is afraid of change and will prefer their own backyards, however problematic, to an unknown. My father and his brother were the only ones on both sides of my parents' families to leave the former Yugoslavia when it was possible to do so. Why? Because they were a particular type of personality.

Unlike my parents, I have lived in Perth for 31 years and will almost certainly remain here until I die - despite many offers to work in exotic places ranging from the UK, Bermuda and Norfolk Island (not to mention other States and Territories in Australia). Why? Because I am not like my parents. I am more typically subject to the usual human inertia. Were people to start bombing Perth however...

So the belief held by refugee-fearing folk (both here in Australia and elsewhere in the Western world) that people from poor countries are determined to come to our countries at all costs, is overblown - if not entirely incorrect.

Most refugees from Syria and Iraq moved into UN refugee camps just over one of their countries' borders. Of the 60 million people who have been displaced by recent wars, less than 2 million are banging on Europe's door. I imagine there would be even fewer if the UN camps weren't over-crowded desert hell-holes with ever-diminishing resources and facilities and increasing security risks. At the peak of boat arrivals, Australia was receiving less than 20,000 people by boat annually.

There is, of course, also the very deep irony that those who make it all the way to Australia by boat without lengthy periods in UN camps are very likely the personality type that is most determined to survive by their own means.  It is no surprise then that the Australian Bureau of Statistics has found such humanitarian migrants to be the most entrepreneurial among new Australians.  By comparison, refugees taken from UN camps have been noted as (understandably) developing a high welfare dependency. So natural selection gives us boat people with the kind of "pioneer work ethic" that built Australia, and people who have not spent years getting used to living off aid. Yet we reject these people as "queue jumpers". We reject them precisely because of their initiative, dogged determination and higher likelihood of economic self-sufficiency.  Go figure.

For these reasons, we Australians need to stop punishing innocent refugees in order to deter the arrival of others. It is appalling in both morality and logic. We may have "stopped the boats" coming into our waters, and "stopped drownings" in our waters, but we haven't reduced the misery of the refugees: we've simply moved that misery out of sight and mind.

After all, who knows what happens to the people in the boats that have been "turned back"?  Who knows what happens to the people who decide not to try to seek asylum in Australia after seeing advertisements warning them of the futility of this action?

If we really want to stop the refugee crisis, we should start by examining its causes - including endless wars, particularly in the Middle East - and our indifference or contribution to those causes. We won't stop it by punishing some of its innocent victims.