Back to the strategic basics, not the politics or emotion, on asylum and refugee policy

By fixating on the recurrent symptoms, not the causes and cures, most public argument on asylum seeking continues ineffectively. Politicians are addicted to electoral point-scoring. Refugee advocates are prone to discuss factors selectively.

Some community concerns about “boat people” and visa-overstayers are undoubtedly due to misunderstandings and even at times irrational fears.

But informed concern is surely well-grounded in appreciating the risk that unauthorised and therefore uncontrolled arrivals compromise Australia's national immigration policy, sovereignty and — should numbers increase dramatically and/or suddenly — our domestic economic, social and political stability and our environmental sustainability. 

Arguments commonly mounted in favour of accepting asylum seekers tend to centre on the low numbers arriving currently, or cite the Refugee Convention and world refugee statistics selectively.

This does not assuage basic community concern about potentially larger numbers if policy remains so hostage to events. 

Similarly, knee-jerk allegations of supposed xenophobia or racism are way off target where one in four Australians was born overseas and most Australians are knowledgeable about immigration matters and compassionate about genuine refugees. 

The vast majority of Australians, even if disagreeing about aspects of refugee policy, seem to agree overwhelmingly that our national compassion must be focused using two principles: 

  • Australia cannot possibly shelter or resettle all the world’s refugees so compassion must be applied using prioritisation and equity; and 
  • our refugee intake, including any increases, should not occur by means outside reasonable Australian control. 

Informed debate is therefore more over the matter of fairness, priorities and control as necessary principles, not over the responsibility to provide refuge or even the numbers to be given sanctuary in practice. 

Too many arguing on all sides are also trapped in fallacious assumptions. 

These include:

  • that this is wholly a domestic matter;
  • not mainly a strategic policy issue;
  •  that our regional neighbours are uninvolved or blameless;
  •  that all asylum applications are genuine, or alternatively all bogus;
  •  that asylum means permanent residence as an immigration outcome, not protection for as long as it is needed as the Convention requires;
  •  that bogus claimants are being successfully deported when they are not; and
  •  various selective or erroneous beliefs about push and pull factors. 

Australia’s predicament is primarily due to our geo-political situation.

Only 7 of the 35 countries between the Aegean and Arafura Seas are signatories to the 1951 Refugee Convention. 

Six of the seven are effectively pseudo-signatories.

The nearest real signatories to our north-west are Israel and the European Union.

To the north-east it’s the USA and Canada. To the north its no-one. 

Even New Zealand takes in much fewer refugees per capita because we are who and where we are. 

We also need to buttress the universality, integrity and original intention of the Refugee Convention and Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

Particularly the importance of pressuring neighbouring states in conflict-afflicted regions to resolve these wars in the first place, so refugees can swiftly return home directly to rebuild broken polities and societies. 

Rather than stay marooned in refugee camps watching their civil societies and families destroyed. 

The incidence of war or civil strife in the world generally is not a “push factor” per se, as some claim reflexively, but another recurrent symptom of the Convention not being universal. 

The key pull factor is that Australia is a highly desirable first-world country; and one of only four with a popularly-accepted mass immigration program, a diverse society, and no national ID card so disappearing into the diversity is easy.

Indeed it is the success and cultural acceptance of our immigration-based society that so skews debate away from what our Convention responsibilities actually are. 

Since 1946 we have permanently resettled, rather than just temporarily sheltered as the Convention requires, over 700,000 refugees. 

Apples-and-oranges comparisons with larger numbers currently hosted temporarily by some countries obfuscate proper comparisons about degrees of protection and proportionate burdens over time, and excuse buck-passing by all our regional neighbours. 

It is axiomatic that the effective regional mechanism needed to protect refugees would involve “offshore processing” in an Australian context.

But our near and further neighbours have no incentive to sign the Convention, or otherwise care for refugees, because they regard us (and the EU) as their permanent “soft-touch” solution. 


  • market forces mean people-smuggling flourishes and the Refugee Convention is undermined; 
  • around five per cent of unauthorised arrivals by boat drown due to various criminal acts in Indonesia; 
  • our intercepting naval personnel are put at risk saving them and now need to be armed and equipped with anti-stab vests; 
  • most boat arrivals destroy identifying documents because they are false; 
  • our detention centres are bulging, re-filling continually and riven with violence, riots, suicide and mental stress; and 
  • deportation rates for bogus asylum seekers have sunk to as low as two per cent, due to false claims to be “stateless” and regional non-cooperation generally. 

Compassion must be combined with resolution and strategic realism to really help genuine refugees. 

Turning the tap off at Indonesian and Malaysian airports is the best way to combat people smuggling and immigration fraud without affecting the right to claim asylum or our responsibility to provide it where warranted. 

As deterrents to immigration fraud and people smuggling, we need to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas and negotiate swaps of asylum claimants.

Both are right in principle.

It was the administration of TPVs that was flawed last time (especially the ban on family reunion). Malaysia is the problem with swapping not the policy itself. 

[The nine reasons to reintroduce TPVs can be found here.] 

Offshore centres such as Manus and Nauru remain worth trying, but their deterrent value would be much diminished without TPVs and other regional countries not acceding to the Convention. 

Current numbers of unauthorised arrivals by sea and air are manageable.

But the strategic, law enforcement and humanitarian effectiveness of current policy, including sustaining public confidence, is wholly dependent on the numbers remaining low and slow.

But there is no longer any strategic, crime deterrent, economic migration, refugee flow, international travel complexity or public policy rationale for this complacency to succeed. 

We are getting ever closer to having to warn our neighbours that unless they accede to the Convention, and live up to its responsibilities, we will have to suspend our membership and humanely turn boats and airline passengers back until they do.

[The comprehensive ADA discussion paper on this issue can be found  here]