On Saturday 22 October, a boat with 15 asylum seekers and one crew members was spotted just west of Ashmore Islands off the coast of Western Australia. Another vessel, carrying 79 more asylum seekers and two crew, was found north of Christmas Island overnight by an RAAF surveillance plane and was later assisted by HMAS Pirie. Early on Sunday morning, HMAS Larrakia intercepted a third boat east of Christmas Island, this one carrying 44 asylum seekers and three crew members.
The reaction from our politicians has been predictable. The Shadow Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, Scott Morrison, blamed Julia Gillard and Labor. "Australia has been left without a border protection policy because Labor chose to adopt the Greens’ solution of onshore processing and releasing illegal boat arrivals into the community with work rights, rather than accept the Coalition’s proven solutions … As long as Labor continues to cling to policy failures like their Malaysian people swap the boats will continue to arrive," Morrison said.
Last week, a vessel carrying 51 asylum seekers was intercepted off the northwest coast of Australia. Home Affairs Minister Brendan O’Connor told the Australian, "We have an opposition that has now trashed border protection by opposing legislation that would allow this government and future governments to have an offshore processing arrangement for people smugglers and dealing with people smugglers."
There’s no shortage of blaming from either side. All this, however, betrays an ignorance of some very basic facts about how to deal with asylum seekers.
Both sides of politics continue to claim that policies of deterrence — such as mandatory detention — are an effective component of our border control program. UNHCR research shows, however, that detention does not have an impact on the number of boat arrivals. A recent paper released by the Centre for Policy Development (CPD), authors John Menadue, Arja Keski-Nummi and Kate Gauthier found that detention "fails to impact on the choice of destination country and does not reduce numbers of arrivals".
According to the CPD paper, the interception of asylum seekers, mandatory detention and processing will cost Australia $800 million dollars in the next financial year. That’s $90,000 for every asylum seeker. It is a costly exercise, although the budget could be looking better after the government’s Malaysia people-swap deal was scuttled in the High Court earlier this month.
In essence, both the Government and the Opposition are scrambling to upbraid each other for failing to pass costly, ineffective and ultimately inhumane legislation on asylum seekers.
What the Government and many commentators have failed to understand is that migration is much more than a simple combination of "push" and "pull" factors. Such a view focuses on the individual. It assumes that potential migrants have perfect knowledge of conditions in a destination country, and that they are able to make the decision to move based on a rational comparison of the relative costs and benefits of staying or going. The push-pull model treats migrants as market players, who have complete information on all of their options and who also have the freedom to make rational choices.
But, as the CPD paper observes, many asylum seekers are either "not aware of the detention policy or its impact in the country of destination; may see it is an inevitable part of the journey; and, do not convey the deterrence message back to the country of origin". Migrants may have limited and usually contradictory information; their choice to leave may not simply be a case of seeking the best possible outcome. Concentration on push-pull factors is simplistic and misleading.
Migration is a complex phenomenon that brings together economic, political, social and cultural factors — and it requires policy decisions based in equally complex understandings of migration.
The movement of all migrants, including refugees, needs to be seen as the result of an intricate interaction between political, social and economic conditions at global, regional and national levels. Policies should recognise that individuals make their decisions to migrate within those contexts, but also because of very personal circumstances, including belonging to informal social networks developed by migrants and their families between countries of origin and destination. These factors are largely absent from public debates on asylum seeker policy in Australia.
Instead, we focus on the boats and the people smugglers that operate them. There are intermediaries between individual migrants and broader political or economic institutions. Made up of recruitment organisations, lawyers, agents, smugglers and other go-betweens, the migration industry can both help and exploit migrants. The only way to manipulate the intermediaries and break the business model, so to speak, is to enter the migration industry and offer a more attractive option to asylum seekers who would otherwise have no option but to migrate under dangerous circumstances.
In the current political climate, this is a very unlikely outcome. Our government won’t be rushing out to collect asylum seekers from across the globe anytime soon. But the point is that it is misguided for one single government to attempt to manipulate one single aspect of the migratory process in the expectation that their actions will somehow achieve a clear outcome — stopping the boats, for example.
Overall, the Government looks ridiculous taking credit for the decisions of asylum seekers by referring to its successful manipulation of pull factors. There are factors at play that the Australian government will never be able to affect. At the heart of the problem are the conditions in other nations that cause people to seek asylum, and there is very little our government can do about that. For now, processing asylum seekers onshore is the cheaper and more humane alternative to a costly, illegal and ineffective alternative.
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