Many of us want to believe that there is a just and moral solution to the asylum seekers issue.
For two decades arguments based on a variety of interpretations of what justice and morality may involve have been presented again and again.
And since prime minister Kevin Rudd announced plans to process and resettle boat arrivals in Papua New Guinea and deny them asylum in Australia, the same arguments are in evidence.
This process of repetition points to entrenched positions and absence of dialogue.
There are, however, a number of issues and costs which reasonable assessments need to confront, especially on the side of the debate that calls for “compassion” without recognising the need for government to formulate policy based on evidence and to balance competing needs.
The scale of population displacement
During 2012, worldwide conflict and persecution forced an average of 23,000 persons per day to leave their homes and seek protection. At the end of 2012 there were 45.2 million forcibly displaced persons. This included 10.5 million refugees under the mandate of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with a marginal decline of refugee populations in the Asia and Pacific region.
Developing countries hosted over 80% of the world’s refugees, with 1.6 million in Pakistan and 862,000 in Iran.
According to the UNHCR, Australia makes little contribution in hosting refugees and asylum seekers. The UNHCR indicates that at the end of 2012 Australia protected 30,083 refugees and 20,010 asylum seekers, a total of 50,093 persons.
The way these statistics are presented is, however, open to question. In contrast to countries which provide temporary protection, Australian governments - whether Coalition or Labor - have chosen to make their major contribution through resettlement.
Between 2001 and 2009, Australia, acting in co-operation with the UNHCR, resettled 109,000 refugees: 13.5% of the world total over these years. The Howard government worked closely with the UNHCR on resettlement, and between 2003 and 2008 it provided visa grants to 18,527 refugees from Sudan.
In overall numbers of resettled refugees Australia does not rank 50 or 100 among the nations. On a per capita basis, it ranks close to first, which is not to say that it cannot do better. But Australia does maintain a world-class resettlement program, providing short-term accommodation, assistance through Centrelink and Medibank, and access to the Adult Migration English Program.
Push and pull factors
The argument is often presented that Australian policies do not determine the flow of asylum seekers – rather, population flows are determined by push factors. There is, however, much evidence which points to the interplay of push and pull factors, with overseas perception of Australian policy being a significant determinant.
Between 1999-2000 and 2001-02, arrivals of asylum seekers by boat averaged close to 3,500 a year. Following the introduction of Howard government’s policies, there was an average of 40 boat arrivals per year for six years. Following changes under Kevin Rudd, 668 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2008-09, then 4579, 5174, and 7379 over the next three financial years.
In 2012-13, close to 25,000 arrived, far exceeding projections based on appraisal of push factors. Budget projections for 2012-13 had provided for 5,400 arrivals.
What are the current costs of managing arrivals by boat? There is no easy answer as costs are carried by more than one department and governments have not provided a one-line total. But a parliamentary research paper indicates an increase in the core budget allocation from A$111.5 million in 2008-2009 to $1.05 billion in 2011-12. This included an increase in community and detention services from $35.2 million to $709.4 million and a rise in departmental costs from $59.2 million to $233.3 million.
This, however, is not the full amount. The 2009-10 budget allocated $654 million to combat people smuggling, while the 2010-11 budget provided for $1.2 billion to “bolster Australia’s border security”. Offshore asylum seeker management is estimated to reach $2.867 billion in 2013-14.
It has been argued that costs would be dramatically reduced with fewer asylum seekers in detention. But some costs cannot be cut – including the very substantial cost of air and sea patrols and administration. There is also a reasonable assumption that the flow of asylum seekers by boat would increase with relatively favourable reception policies.
Long-term costs also need to be to be included. Australia carefully selects immigrants to maximise integration. Asylum seekers have made wonderful contributions to Australian life, but many arrive without skills and English language ability, and traumatised by their experiences.
What weight should be accorded to domestic concerns about boat arrivals – and potential impact on social cohesion? The record of polling over more than a decade demonstrates that only a small minority (generally in the range of 20-25%) support the right of boat arrivals to be eligible for permanent residence.
Lest such findings be dismissed as a function of bigotry or a reflection of frenzied media, three Scanlon Foundation surveys between 2010 and 2012 found between 70%-75% of those polled were in support of Australia’s humanitarian program, specified as entailing overseas selection of refugees for resettlement.
Most recently, Newspoll found that 59% of respondents considered that either Labor or the Coalition was best to handle asylum seekers arriving in Australia. Just 12% indicated “someone else”, while the remainder were either uncommitted or opted for no one.
Competing needs and balance
It is often stated that there is no queue for asylum seekers - hence it is reasonable for individuals to take the initiative to save themselves and their families by trying to reach Australia. Would we, placed in similar circumstances, not do the same? The answer may well be a resounding yes, without such answer being compelling.
The unfortunate reality is that there is no queue in many fields of life. Typically demand far exceeds supply. Governments decide where to put queues and how to allocate scarce resources – for urgent domestic needs, such as public housing, child protection, education, medical care and infrastructure.
There are also desperate needs to contribute to the alleviation of international poverty. While globally there are 10.5 million refugees under UNHCR mandate, there are over one billion people living in extreme poverty. Every day an estimated 22,000 children under the age of five die from preventable conditions. Some 67 million children do not have the opportunity to attend primary school.
Australia’s foreign aid program is designed to deliver (by 2015-16) vaccination to 10 million children, increased access to safe water to 8.5 million and increased access to basic sanitation to 5 million. In the 2012 budget, $375 million was removed from the planned foreign aid allocation to fund domestic asylum needs.
There is one stark statistic to be considered in the context of balance. The current Australian budget allocation for dealing with asylum seekers and people smuggling may come close to the total UNHCR budget for dealing with global refugee needs.
There are stories that we like to tell ourselves – such as the way in which compassion could have saved the Jews of Europe from Hitler, or the applicability of Fraser government policies to the circumstances of today.
And then there is recognition of the magnitude and complexity of problems.
After promising not to “lurch to the right” on refugees if he returned as prime minister, Kevin Rudd dramatically did just that with his plan to send refugees to Papua New Guinea for processing and resettlement. He says no refugee who arrives by boat will ever be settled in Australia.
This is a draconian plan beyond the dreams of hardline racists like Pauline Hanson and John Howard. Yet despite this, leaders of the ALP left, such as Doug Cameron and Melissa Parke, have defended the policy.
Both piously claim to be concerned about saving lives at sea. Rudd’s policy won't do that. But it will reinforce the racist poison that is a disaster for refugees and for the ordinary Australians whose lives will be worse because of it.
So how should Australia manage refugees? Australia should first close all detention centres offshore and at home. People should be able to live in the community while their asylum claim is assessed — as was the norm before Labor introduced mandatory detention in 1992.
Second, Australia should allow refugees in countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to apply for asylum and arrange flights so that they can arrive safely without having to make a dangerous trip by sea. It should also lift visa restrictions on people from certain countries, so that if they have the means they can fly here and apply for asylum when they land.
Third, if refugees feel the need to travel to Australia by boat, any distress calls should be answered promptly with immediate rescue instead of waiting 48 hours or more, as commonly happens today.
Some people think that policies like these could never be accepted by Australian people, that Labor has to put forward a draconian policy if Abbott is to be defeated. “If you don't pander to scared racists you won't get elected in Australia,” read one mock poster in the style of the immigration department's racist ad that has done the rounds on social media.
This is not true for several reasons. Most importantly, it ignores that the Howard/Ruddock/Abbott style of refugee bashing is only credible today because Labor has never seriously challenged it — and in government they've freely accommodated to it.
Further, the hardcore rabid racist support for refugee bashing is actually a tiny minority whose influence is wildly exaggerated in the media. The reality is that most Australians can be won to an anti-racist and pro-refugee position in the right circumstances.
One important element of winning that debate is actually taking steps to solve the economic and social problems that refugee bashing is designed to distract us from. In this sense, standing up for refugee rights is standing up for justice for all workers and poor people.
How many refugees should Australia accept? We need to reaffirm that any person — without exception — who comes to Australia, appeals for asylum and is found to be a refugee should be given assistance and welcomed in the community. This is a wealthy country and we can afford to do this.
The definition of a refugee should be expanded to include people who are forced to leave their home due to economic hardship or environmental destruction.
Foreign minister Bob Carr insists “economic migrants” do not have a legitimate right to come to Australia, but people should not be forced to live in poverty and there is no surprise they would want to seek a better life for themselves. There is nothing natural about poverty. Poor countries are kept that way by global trade rules that advantage rich countries like Australia, whose corporations benefit from cheap labour and natural resources of poor countries.
When policies of the Australian government directly contribute to creating poverty, for example by implementing harsh economic sanctions on Iran, or Australian companies who destroy the environment that people depend on for their livelihoods, then Australia should not turn away people seeking to escape that.
And of course, refugees and migrants will contribute to our society and economy as has happened numerous times in the past.
What if 10 million people came to this country seeking asylum? This question is as unreal and implausible as if one were to ask: what if 3 million people presented at Royal Prince Alfred hospital's emergency department on a single day? Or what if 500,000 people rang the fire brigade because their houses were on fire?
In the immediate post-war years, Australia accepted more than 170,000 people with a population less than two fifths of today. There is more than enough capacity to assist as many refugees as conceivably would come here in the foreseeable future.
In any case, most refugees don't want to come to Australia, because they don’t want to have to leave their home in the first place. They want the problems to be addressed in their own country.
Australia could assist in achieving this goal by changing our foreign policy to end support for war and occupation in the Middle East, to end support for the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime's war crimes in Sri Lanka, to end support for Israel's apartheid policies towards Palestine.
The arguments of the government, opposition or Labor left apologists do not stand up to any serious scrutiny. Better policy alternatives than forcing refugees to an uncertain future in PNG exist.
Both for humanitarian reasons and in the interests of winning broader justice in this country, Australia should welcome refugees.
[Sam Wainwright is a Fremantle City Councillor and the Socialist Alliance candidate for the federal seat of Fremantle.]