Two crazy ideas for the asylum seeker problem

Asylum seeker boat arrivals – fairly inconsequential in real terms – are a major political problem.

Last night on QandA a Labor minister indicated that the “journey” would not be “re-opened” for asylum seekers, indicating a maniacal desire to “stop the boats” is a bipartisan ambition.Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 11.13.20 am

The racist pandering to Western Sydney inherent in “stopping the boats” was always called out as the bullshit it was. Until the video of the drownings of asylum seekers on the coast of Christmas Island in 2010. Suddenly it was possible to say preventing asylum seekers from arriving in Australia by boat was a moral imperative.

That’s an extreme idea, requiring the sort of broad view of morality that would also support fencing off Australia’s surf beaches to prevent drownings. Most people would say imperative #1 is to not harm people with your actions.

One year ago I wrote about how powerless and ineffective I feel when faced with asylum seeker policy. What’s changed is that the extreme nature of the “solution” – including laws preventing reporting of child abuse – permits a broader range of alternatives that might previously also have been seen as “extreme.”

So is it possible to solve the boat arrivals “problem” without spending billions and becoming a police state? It must be. Lets think outside the box.

1. Make a queue

People are always fighting about queue jumpers, and whether there is a queue. What if we made an actual queue on the shores of Indonesia, where the boats are leaving from?

Asylum seekers get on a boat because that’s how they imagine they can get into Australia. What if we let them get into Australia without getting on a boat?

Could we rent some space from the Indonesians, bring it inside the migration exclusion zone and process refugee claims up there?

Budget impact score: 9/10. No more detention centres, less need to police the seas for boat arrivals, etc.

Political acceptability score: 5/10. Should diminish boat arrivals so long as the applications are processed swiftly.

Direct morality score: 8/10. Assuming they are able to live in the community in Indonesia, there need be no imprisonment.

Indirect morality score: 9/10. No more drownings between Indonesia and Christmas Island.

2. Open slather.

Embrace boat arrivals. Stop turnbacks, Close off-shore detention; close on-shore detention; visas to live in the community while refugee applications processed.

This is about stopping boat arrivals from being a political problem. If you wanted to change the narrative on boat arrivals, you’d have to own the arrival of each boat. Get a video crew, translators and a government minister onto each boat as it arrives, so we can see them shaking hands with the asylum seekers, chatting and smiling. Interview the people, find out their stories and their names. Publish lists of asylum seekers, their smiling photos, and key quotes from them. Humanise not dehumanise. Let’s hear about their desire to live in Australia, their interest in what they’ve heard about us, their qualifications and jobs in their home countries, what they’re fleeing, what skills they bring, etc. This would absolutely freak everyone out for a while but the rate of repetition and the volume of boat arrival footage might eventually make boat arrivals very very boring.

(I think this approach could be helped along by some sort of non-government work to try to humanise asylum seekers. Greenpeace made us care about whales by having little inflatable boats out there and video cameras showing what was happening. Can we do the same with Asylum seekers? Could Sea Shepherd open up a northern Australia branch, for caring about humans? )

Budget impact score: 10/10. This is cheap.

Political acceptability score: 2/10 in the short-term as boat arrivals will go up up up.

Direct morality score: 10/10 (No more taxpayer-funded imprisoning of innocent people)

Indirect morality score: 5/10. (Some drownings still likely).

I’d be very interested to hear any other crazy ideas people have. Please share them below!

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Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

8 thoughts on “Two crazy ideas for the asylum seeker problem”

  1. While I’m highly sympathetic to asylum seekers regardless of how they’ve arrived in Australia, I’m doubtful that these ideas on their own will be effective.

    A major complication is the ‘pull factor’ of Australian being a place where refugee claims are taken seriously. As the stats show, once Rudd closed Nauru and stopped stacking the MRT/RRT with right-wing hacks, asylum arrivals both on-shore and off-shore skyrocketed. Unfortunately, despite Rudd’s best intentions, the easing of our nasty immigration laws made Australia a far more enticing place to try and reach in order to escape persecution.

    The last thing any Australian politician wants is for numbers to increase to that of European countries like Malta or Italy – it’ll be political suicide no matter how much effort is put in to humanising these men, women and children.

    An idea I’ve pondered for a while involves a combination of carrot and stick. It’s in no way perfect, but it might work for a time at least.

    Carrot-wise, Australia needs to dramatically boost its refugee intake from neighbouring countries, and do all that is possible to speed up the assessment and relocation processes (waiting in Indonesia for 17 years, while avoiding being murdered back in Pakistan, is unnecessarily cruel – as cruel as leaving people to drown in my view). Refugees should be given work and education rights, and strongly encouraged to take part in the Australian community so that they can move on with their lives.

    However, these benefits should come with clear consequences for transgressions. People making the journey by boat should be sent back to Indonesia or Malaysia and put at the back of the now-actually-existing queue. Refugees who breach the law in any serious way should be able to have their visas cancelled and sent back to their original countries (heartless in some respects, but it must be emphasised that they’re incredibly fortunate to have got to Australia and so must respect the community that’s taken them in).

    This must all be spelled out CLEARLY AND REPEATEDLY. None of KRudd’s arbitrary announcement that people already in detention will ‘never’ be resettled in Australia – that’s entirely unjust and nasty to those who didn’t know better. No deportations if the government neglected to inform refugee families about laws regarding FGM, underage marriage, etc. They need to be told from the very beginning of their obligations under the resettlement program, or the whole thing will fall into disarray.

    In my opinion, this policy would walk the line between being as fair as possible to asylum seekers (who are ultimately trying to escape persecution the likes of which we will never experience) and giving the Australian community some reassurance that there’s an orderly, ‘fair dinkum’ process happening along the way.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is a good and sensible suggestion. I’m really no expert on immigration, and I know it shows!


      1. Thanks Jason!

        I’m no expert either, but after hearing countless arguments from asylum seeker activists that are:

        * Incorrect (e.g. boat numbers dropped because of global trends, not the Pacific Solution),
        * Unrealistic (e.g. we’ll reach a ‘regional agreement’ where developing nations will happily take thousands of refugees they don’t currently want to take), or
        * Are just counterproductive (e.g. “Anyone who isn’t a fan of open borders is just xenophobic/racists/ignorant/sadistic”),

        I want to find a pragmatic policy response that, while still not perfect with regard to human rights, rule of law, international treaties, etc., is infinitely less cruel than the current approach. The only way to do that in my opinion is to throw anything and everything out there and see what can be mashed together into a coherent policy.

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I like your suggestions too.

      In my opinion, the debate is skewed by the immediacy of the suffering of refugees arriving by boat. There are many more refugees suffering elsewhere in the world, but their suffering is overlooked because it feels more remote.

      We see genuinely needy people trying to get to Australia by boat. We want to help them. But for every refugee we accept by boat, one less refugee is brought to Australia through conventional UNHCR channels.

      So even if Australia takes in all the refugees who arrive by boat, the overall number of refugees accepted into Australia would remain the same. The only difference would be that the suffering of the refugees who we feel closer to and more responsible for would be alleviated. The suffering of refugees the world over, however, would remain the same.

      I believe incarcerating asylum seekers as we do now is heinous. I believe Australia should accept more refugees per year than we currently do.

      But if you accept that there should be a limit to the number of refugees Australia resettles per year, I don’t see how accepting more refugees who arrive by boat actually helps the overall problem of finding safe haven for refugees the world over.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s also worth remembering that between the Vietnamese infusion of the 1970s and the 2000s, asylum seeker boat arrivals dried up.

    The proportion of people that want to flee their country is actually small. Push factors are a major issue right now, due to middle east instability. They’re likely to be less so in the future as the world becomes safer.

    The point of this is that the boat “problem” has perhaps got a natural limit. There’s not an infinite number of people willing to take the risk, and our policy should be proportional.


  3. You may want to check out LDP policy on this: in particular the idea of a tariff or price for migration rather than a quota. i.e. instead of migrants paying people smugglers, they could pay the Australian Govt instead! The tariff price would be set to limit market demand and as fair payment for someone to contribute to their share of Australia’s infrastructure on arrival. Genuine political refugees might receive a hard-ship credit (or HECS style loan scheme??). Humanitarian organisations, churches, Rotary and other do-gooders would be free to pay the immigration fees or put up bonds on another’s behalf.
    As an economist you should prefer a price over a quota any day of the week?


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