Asylum and refugee policy: Addressing community concern and scepticism with facts

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Coupled with the deep-seated concept of “fair play” in Australian culture, all the above specific causes of concern, scepticism and other perceptions contribute to the strongly held community belief (measured in numerous quality opinion polls) that perceived unfair “queue jumping” should, in both principle and practice, be prevented not rewarded.

Even in the case of genuine asylum seekers.

But what is often forgotten or deliberately ignored is that underlying all these public concerns and causes of scepticism about current policy, or the current situation, are conscious and unconscious community apprehensions about potentially large numbers of arrivals in future if the problem remains out of Australia's apparent control as they see it.

So where arguments commonly mounted in favour of accepting more asylum seekers merely emphasise the low numbers arriving currently or cite the Refugee Convention selectively — as many refugee lobbyists and some politicians are wont to do reflexively — this does not assuage the apparent significant underlying community concern about potentially larger numbers if policy remains so hostage to events.

Especially where unauthorised arrivals are suspected, validly or invalidly in individual cases, of not being genuine asylum seekers.

This is one reason why there is so little community concern in contrast about both genuine and bogus asylum seekers who enter Australia in an ostensibly authorised manner before claiming asylum, for example, aboard airliners when holding tourist or student visas.

Concern about Australia, probably alone in the region, having to face the risk of much higher numbers of arrivals also seems to be why so many Australians are sceptical when it is argued that onshore processing of asylum claims in Australia will not result in a significant demand-pull effect.

The Indonesian experience of the UNHCR centre at Galang Island in the 1975-1996 period provides some clear lessons in this regard.

It also underscores at least part of Indonesia's concerns that another major demand-pull effect would have resulted from Australia's previous unilateral negotiations with East Timor about establishing an offshore processing centre there.

In the continued absence of a real and effective protection mechanism for refugees across the region, and whatever the size of the current or potential demand-pull effect, most Australians seem to consider that onshore processing ? particularly if coupled with the apparent open-door policy advocated by some (more narrowly-focused) refugee activists ? will significantly increase the numbers of unauthorised arrivals to Australia.

There is also naturally community concern that onshore processing of asylum seekers in Australia alone is likely to complicate the screening of genuine asylum seeking from illegal immigration ? and will certainly complicate being unable to deport those who are found not to be genuine refugees.


Tackling community disagreements objectively, not emotively

Opinion polls show most Australians are compassionate about refugees. Public debate more generally indicates that the vast majority of Australians, even where they disagree about aspects of asylum and refugee policy, seem to agree overwhelmingly that our national compassion must be focused using two principles:

Informed public debate on refugee policy is therefore generally more over the matter of priorities, equity and control as necessary principles, not over the responsibility to provide refuge or even the numbers of refugees to be given sanctuary in practice.

Although some refugee activists do not appear to realise this, or at least concede it in public, much public debate on asylum and refugee policy is therefore really about how the current or any increased refugee intake should be organised.

Especially concerning the priority to be afforded to those asylum seekers who can self-select Australia and travel here to lodge an asylum claim, often at the price of worsening and/or lengthening the situation of the much larger numbers of genuine refugees (such as those registered with the UNHCR) who cannot.

Moreover, and more often than not, public disagreement about asylum and refugee policy is not the result of a lack of compassion. Nor indeed due to a supposed surfeit of public indifference, ignorance, xenophobia or racism.

Most disagreement seems to stem instead from misunderstandings or where practicality clashes or requires compromises with idealism or ideology.

A good way of explaining the effect on debate of basic attitudinal differences in practice is to note the core assumptions often underlying opposing perceptions.

While compassionate, most Australians seem to still feel that asylum claimants need to prove the validity of their claim in case they are fraudulently seeking an immigration outcome (and taking the place of a genuine refugee).

Most refugee activists, on the other hand, seem to assume that all or most asylum claimants are automatically genuine refugees needing protection, and that even though highly-desired permanent residence is usually the outcome little or no immigration fraud could possibly be involved.

It often seems that such disagreements are just another recurrence of the common differences in perspective between those motivated by practicality or idealism. Or between those preferring long-term and consistent solutions, rather than short-term or temporarily convenient "stop-gap" approaches.

But particularly strong and counter-productive reactions are also generated when fellow Australians are, generally incorrectly and tactlessly, regarded by some refugee activists as lacking in compassion just because they disagree with such activists about where their compassion for asylum seekers and refugees should be focused and how it is best exercised.

Other legitimate disagreements about humanitarian priorities stem from the commonplace belief that the best way to be compassionate about reducing the numbers of unauthorised arrivals in immigration detention, and the duration of such detention, is by reducing the numbers arriving in Australia in the first place and improving the process of providing humanitarian visa to genuine refugees in overseas camps ? including through better regional protection mechanisms across our region and the world.

The factually distorted nature of much public debate on asylum and refugee policy, commonplace myths and misconceptions complicating such debate and facts and moral dilemmas often missed from debate, are discussed below.

Also discussed below are some important national security aspects and ramifications that tend to be missed in much public argument.


Tackling the racism bogey

Even worse it is both wrong (in both senses) and highly counter-productive when refugee activists reflexively, simplistically and usually inaccurately accuse those who disagree with them as "racist" and dismiss their legitimate beliefs and concerns.

Recently some refugee activists have even resorted to dog-whistling slurs against those who disagree with them by alleging "base motivations" or "base instincts" to wrongly imply general or individual racism.

Such allegations of open or covert racism are clearly much more often than not factually incorrect and morally wrong.

Particularly when used as a ploy to avoid debating the many complexities of the issue or that many Australians apparently believe that the best way to help genuine refugees is to prevent or resolve the conflicts causing refugee flows in the first place.


Australia’s geo-political setting must be the basis for informed debate

But on top of the domestic introversion and community misunderstandings involved, the biggest single obstacle to informed public debate is that most participants — on all sides — tend to disregard the necessary geo-political background to any effective and long-term Australian policy-making about asylum and refugee issues.

This includes Australia's geo-political setting, the push and pull factors actually applying to refugee flows into Australia, and the strategic and moral intentions behind the relevant international law.

The primary and essential geo-political fact underlying the formulation of Australian asylum and refugee policy is that only 7 of the 35 or so countries between the Aegean and Arafura Seas are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Turkey rejected its extension outside Europe in the 1967 Protocol.

With the partial exception of Israel, and perhaps Iran at times, the other four or five (Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, East Timor and Cambodia) are effectively pseudo-signatories with major records of causing or facilitating refugee flows rather than providing sanctuary.

Few other countries in the wider Asia-Pacific region are signatories. Of our closer neighbours, only New Zealand and to an extent Papua New Guinea take their responsibilities seriously in action.

The clear and enduring facts are that the following six geographic and strategic factors place Australia permanently in our region’s frontline for extra-regional asylum claims from West Asia, South Asia and the Middle East in particular:

All public debate on asylum and refugee policy therefore always needs to start from the fundamental basis that any effective discussion of such matters in Australia must acknowledge our geo-political setting and develop national policy accordingly.

We need to look and act outwards, not just muse inwardly and focus discussion and policy domestically.

What unfortunately tends to happen instead, however, is that Australia’s broader geo-political, legal and moral settings are either ignored or obfuscated in much public debate on asylum and refugee policy.

Or, conversely, the relative importance and moral implications of domestic aspects, generally the immediately identifiable local humanitarian ramifications, dominate to the exclusion of the broader, larger and more important geo-political considerations.


The real “push” factors

Discussion of the "push" and "pull" factors behind refugee flows are similarly often circumscribed by being discussed only in domestic party-political contexts or in terms based only on ideological convictions.

The most important “push” factor complicating Australia’s strategic position and moral dilemmas concerning asylum seeking is surely that most countries in our near and even wider regions have not acceded to the Refugee Convention.

This is partly due to Australia's longstanding accession.

It is also because we are one of the very few countries that permanently resettles large numbers of refugees (discussed below) rather than just providing the temporary sanctuary the Convention requires.

Both these factors effectively let our neighbouring non-signatories off the hook of having to appropriately face their responsibilities for asylum and refugees.

In a nutshell, in our near and wider regions there are no real and equitable regional or universal protection mechanisms for asylum seekers and refugees and there should be.

This particular push factor is frequently ignored in public debate and even denied by many ideological or single-issue polemicists.

The incidence of war or civil strife in the world generally is not a “push factor” per se. Such incidence is often claimed as being a major push factor but by mere assertion alone.

The incidence of conflict is instead mainly another recurrent symptom of the Convention not being truly universal.

Especially over much of the world where the conflicts that ceaselessly cause most refugees occur without being stopped by regional or wider international action.

Some further moral dilemmas posed by this situation are discussed below.

In terms of the effect of marketing as a push factor, the cost of being smuggled into Australia has largely continued to decline since the mid 1990s. The decline has accelerated since 2007.

In the mid 1990s the cost of being smuggled into Australia from, say, Iraq (including airfares to Malaysia or Indonesia from Jordan) was around $US10,000. It is now down to around $US4,000 per head across the Middle East, West Asia (especially Iran and Pakistan) and Sri Lanka.

Mainly because market forces directly reflect fewer obstacles in satisfying potential and actual customers.

In effect, the people smugglers have moved into this field of criminal exploitation — as organised crime often does — because the lack of Refugee Convention signatories in the countries and regions producing the refugees has meant the UNHCR is unable to function properly as the international community's lawful means of resolving the problem.

It is the lack of Convention signatories between the Aegean and Arafura Seas, not the numbers of displaced persons and refugees per se, that lies at the heart of the problem.

The reduction in the cost of being smuggled into Australia also reflects increased knowledge of options among potential customers, the broadening of the market to more customers through globalised communications and ease of travel, and the ease in associated marketing across the world of the product — permanent residence and then citizenship in Australia as a first-world country.

Other underlying push factors are the sheer size and modern mobility of the world’s population.

The UN Population Fund’s State of the World Population report estimates global population reached seven billion in late 2011 and will reach ten billion by 2100. Some 5.2 billion (60 per cent) of the current population live in the Asia-Pacific region but the regional share of global population is expected to decline from 2052.


The real “pull” factors

When discussing the "pull" factors behind asylum seeker and refugee flows, the notions advocated on either extreme of the refugee policy argument — that all asylum claims are either automatically genuine or invariably bogus — are illogical and not borne out by the long-term evidence.

Policy for handling asylum claims therefore always needs to strike a balance between offering protection for genuine claimants while still deterring and identifying bogus ones.

Unless such a balance is achieved and constantly maintained the intention of the Refugee Convention, the integrity of Australia's asylum, refugee and immigration policies, preserving adequate control over our sovereignty as a country, and retaining the public confidence needed to support and sustain all these aspects, cannot be guaranteed or secured.

Where organised crime exploits both genuine and bogus asylum claimants, and assists the bogus ones with fabricating false claims, this also needs to be deterred and eradicated as a moral objective, as a law enforcement measure and as a strategic-security aim.

Despite mistaken and, occasionally, specious claims to the contrary, the most relevant “pull” factor is surely that Australia is a much nicer place to live than most other countries, particularly in our near and wider region.

Otherwise asylum seekers would readily seek sanctuary with other nearby Convention signatories such as East Timor and Papua New Guinea.

This is also why legal migration to Australia has long been so popular for economic, social and political stability reasons generally.

The next most relevant “pull” factor is that Australia remains one of the only four first-world countries (Australia, Canada, NZ and the US) with a mass immigration program.

In 2010-11, for example, Australia took in nearly 170,000 immigrants (including some 13,750 refugees). In 2011-12 this is projected to rise to 185,000 (around the record figure for our annual immigration intake of 185,099 in 1969-70).

Australia has taken in 6.8 million immigrants and refugees since World War II at a rate of approximately one million each decade for the six decades since 1950.

These high absolute and per capita levels of mass immigration have long been, and largely remain, widely accepted politically and culturally across Australian society.

Indeed they are less controversial now than at any time in our past. It is, however, very important that this level of public support for planned, controlled and environmentally sustainable immigration should be encouraged and maintained.

There is an obvious and probably increasing problem with unauthorised arrivals being relatively uncontrolled, and with a risk that the numbers or the means of arrival might even become uncontrollable at times, that the required levels of public confidence in our immigration programs cannot be sustained.

Even with comparatively low numbers of unauthorised arrivals this could lead to serious repercussions.

Especially for peaceful political discourse, social harmony and the basic national unity consensus needed for effective national security.

A further highly relevant “pull factor” is that Australia also has a particularly long and impressive history of permanently resettling refugees in large per capita and absolute numbers.

Even using the latter measure, only the USA and Canada have resettled more genuine refugees each year from UNHCR camps (the perceived queue) than Australia.

This has been the situation for many decades, going back to the mid 1940s.

Around 700,000, or over ten per cent of the 6.8 million immigrants taken in by Australia since World War II, have been refugees of different categories.

Some countries in our and other regions (South Africa, Kenya, Pakistan, Thailand, etc) have good records for temporarily sheltering asylum seekers and refugees, often in much larger numbers at times.

But this is not directly comparable to the Australian record (and its ramifications) of offering permanent resettlement not just temporary refuge.

This distinction is often ignored or obfuscated by activists basing their argument only on domestically-focused considerations and implications. Or who seek to increase our refugee intake unilaterally through regarding it as just an Australian problem.

On the other side of public argument, the large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees temporarily hosted by other countries are often similarly ignored, or the burden involved is misrepresented, by those Australians opposed to the entry or resettlement of current or larger numbers of refugees to Australia.

Another minor “pull factor” is the interplay between Australia’s size, diverse society and the absence of a compulsory national identity card for citizens and residents.

A disproportionate number of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants entering the European Union, for example, end up in the UK and Ireland primarily because they are the only EU countries without a national identity card system. This is despite the EU's 2003 Dublin Regulation requiring all asylum claims to be lodged in the first EU country entered.

Similarly, the ability to disappear into Australia's diverse society without a visa, or after over-staying or disobeying other conditions of a visa, can be a very attractive situation for both authorised and unauthorised arrivals seeking an immigration outcome illegally.


Refugee Convention requires the provision of refuge not necessarily permanent resettlement

These “pull factors” in particular markedly affect the culture, politics and emotion of Australian public debate, often detrimentally or irrelevantly.

This also often occurs unconsciously to many Australians because our mass immigration programs are so well accepted as part and parcel of Australian life.

This broad acceptance of mass immigration does, however, often lead to the mistaken or wilfully evasive assumption by many protagonists that providing asylum must always involve permanent protection by granting residence and then citizenship — the standard immigration outcome.

Rather than just providing refuge for as long as it might be needed or applicable — the necessary protection responsibility.

Temporary refuge, not permanent resettlement, has always been the clear intention of the Refugee Convention. This is discussed further below.

The idea that permanent resettlement must be provided indeed undermines international acceptance of the Convention by deterring most countries from ever becoming signatories or otherwise offering sanctuary to asylum seekers and refugees.

This is the main reason why the Convention has not been updated or become universal.

In public debate within Australia, this intention of the Refugee Convention is often ignored or misrepresented by many activists concerned about asylum and refugee policy.

This occurs both deliberately in pursuit of a particular cause, or mistakenly through argument being based on flawed assumptions and misunderstandings of the applicable international law and its underlying strategic intentions.

The permanent resettlement fallacy also tends to encourage scepticism, rather than compassion, domestically in Australia about various groups of asylum claimants.

Many and probably most Australians — however validly or invalidly in cases of individual arrivals — tend to regard many asylum claimants collectively as merely self-selecting economic immigrants.

They regard them as voluntarily seeking entry to Australia to obtain permanent residence, rather than consider them as genuine refugees needing, and qualifying for, temporary sanctuary in Australia.

This is why, for example, our previous system of allowing genuine refugees entry to Australia on Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) was entirely consistent with the principles, intentions and moral integrity of the Refugee Convention.

TPVs had some negative but preventable outcomes due to flawed implementation. Such as risky voyages on people smuggler vessels caused by family members seeking to rejoin refugees already granted protection in Australia.

If implemented more effectively and humanely, however — such as allowing some reunion for immediate family members and greater access to employment and public healthcare — there are no moral, practical or legal obstacles under the Refugee Convention or otherwise preventing the reintroduction and effectiveness of TPVs.

Moreover, instead of TPVs being discussed objectively and in context, they are generally criticised reflexively and often polemically.

Indeed the heat of the criticism is generally proportional to the critic's reluctance to consider asylum seeking as an international humanitarian and strategic security problem rather than just a domestic one.

A paper discussing the ten advantages of TPVs can be found here.

If more Australians bothered to research the actual intentions and responsibilities of the 1951 Refugee Convention then informed public debate on asylum and refugee policy could not be so frequently hijacked detrimentally by polemics from some single-issue activists and the day-to-day posturing and general argy-bargy of party politics.


Permanent solutions are needed, not just more attempts at interim fixes

Even more importantly, and usually absent from public debate, is a key aspect of the Refugee Convention and Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

The Convention was specifically designed to supplement the UN Charter by encouraging permanent solutions to conflicts on a regional basis.

Neighbouring countries in an affected region are meant to solve the causes of refugee crises in the first place because they are generally best placed to do so.

Early regional intervention is encouraged so refugees can quickly, safely and easily return to their homes to rebuild broken societies and polities.

Rather than, as now generally occurs, such afflicted societies and countries having many and often most of their best nation-rebuilders perpetually bled off to developed countries while the rest of the refugees remain marooned in permanent or semi-permanent refugee camps.

That the best nation-rebuilders are advantageously extracted to fix staffing shortages in first-world hospitals, engineering firms and skilled-trades occupations, etc, adds a considerable long-term and growing moral dilemma to the overall problem involved. The deeper moral quandary caused should not be ignored.

Having to cope with refugees from a neighbouring country was seen by the Refugee Convention's authors as another spur for neighbouring states to resolve conflicts on a regional basis as Chapter VIII of the UN Charter intends.

But the information available and expectations encouraged by globalisation, and increased access to international travel even in previously remote regions, now mean at least some of this "spur factor" can be avoided.

It is now easier for neighbouring countries to resort to pushing their refugee problem out of the region, including on to states located long distances away, as deliberate policy.

This development was not envisaged by the framers of the Refugee Convention and, as noted above, now discourages states from acceding to it or the Convention itself being reformed.

The rejection of the Convention by so many countries has been particularly destructive and for far too long.

It has meant constant wars, not eventual peace and stability, resulting in never-ending destruction of civil society in afflicted countries and regions.

More widely it has resulted in the misery of permanent refugee camps in many regions across the world and often endemic strategic instability in the affected regions.

On a broader international basis it has meant the misery and moral hypocrisy of near-permanent, extra-regional, asylum seeker and refugee flows, especially by the minority of asylum seekers and refugees who are able to finance and organise their escape.

While some escape, most remain condemned to misery, danger or death because the cause of them needing refuge is not solved, and too often is never resolved.

Their society and polity is not rebuilt on a sustainable basis as the Refugee Convention and the UN Charter intend.

The detrimental strategic and moral consequences of this failure to solve the causes of conflict, and help the majority of genuine refugees, should not be ignored either.

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