The PNG Solution Won't Stop Deaths At Sea


Forget, for a moment, the politics of Kevin Rudd's asylum seeker deal with Papua New Guinea. Forget the rhetoric about toughness, the Immigration Department mawkish video shoots trumpeting misery. If you can possibly manage it, forget about the opinion polls and what voters in western Sydney will think.

Concentrate, just for a moment, on the overriding reason this Labor Government is advancing for Australia's draconian new asylum seeker regime: deaths at sea.

Labor has been unusually united in this message. If you listen to the Prime Minster, to his cabinet colleagues, even to backbenchers and left-wing factional leaders that can normally be expected to run independent lines on controversial issues like this, they are all saying that the reason for this policy is to stop people drowning. 

In his press conference in Brisbane last friday announcing the new deal, Kevin Rudd put it plainly. “Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north,” he said. “Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas.”

Immigration Minister Tony Burke agrees. On the ABC's 7.30 last night, he was asked if the current policy reflected the values he signed up for when joining the ALP.

“I'll tell you what I signed up for,” Burke answered. "'Cause one thing I won't accept is an argument that people have wanted to run that this is somehow a lurch to the right and want to see it within a left-right political spectrum. The principles that I joined the Labor Party did involve making sure that you don't see the sorts of horrors that we've seen in the Indian Ocean.”

Last night on Lateline, Industry Minister Kim Carr was raising the spectre of “criminal gangs” enticing 50,000 asylum seekers onto the high seas. “We've got to ensure that people do not drown in their bids to reach Australia through this means,” he said.

One idea underlies this rhetoric, and indeed, all Australian asylum seeker policy since 2001's Tampa incident: deterrence. By ratcheting up ever-tougher responses to seaborne asylum arrivals, Australia will eventually deter desperate people from getting on boats. “Be in no doubt,” the Prime Minister warned on Friday. “If people are paying thousands and thousands of dollars to a people smuggler they are buying a ticket to a country other than Australia.”

You don't have to be an expert in discourse analysis to see what's going on here. The government is framing the asylum seeker issue in terms of organised crime. People smugglers are the real villains here: “absolute scum of the earth”, as Rudd said in 2009; “merchants in death”, he called them this week.

But the claims about people smugglers and their dastardly business model are more than just rhetoric. They also represent the established public policy framework for asylum seeker arrivals in Australia.

The best example of this was provided last year by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. Asked to come up with a way to stop people drowning at sea, the Expert Panel's recommendations were heavily weighted towards deterrence. Policy suggestions included offshore processing in Papua New Guinea, Nauru and Malaysia and the “no advantage” test, which mandated that anyone arriving by boat would wait at least five years before being processed.

There were other, more humanitarian impulses in the Expert Panel's recommendations, including better regional cooperation over the issue and an increase in Australia's humanitarian refugee intake. To its credit, Julia Gillard's government did increase the humanitarian intake. But, desperate for a political fix to the problem, Labor also stressed the deterrence of seaborne asylum attempts and the over-arching importance of preventing deaths at sea.

At the time, many experts and commentators argued that the Expert Panel's recommendations wouldn't work: that they wouldn't deter. As Nick Riemer argued here as long ago as September 2011, “everything suggests that the vast majority of asylum seekers consider the risk of a dangerous ocean crossing well worth taking.” I made the same argument in June last year.

The pre-eminent academic expert on Australian asylum seeker policy is Monash University criminologist Sharon Pickering. She has chronicled the long and dismal descent of Australia's migration policies towards punishment and demonisation for more than a decade.

In an article for The Conversation in July 2012, Pickering examined the evidence for whether harsh policies deter people from getting on boats. She concluded that, in the Australian context, we don't really know. There is no decent evidence.

“To date, deterrence in the Australian context has not been robustly tested in terms of push, transit and pull elements,” she wrote. “Therefore claims made as to the effectiveness of deterrence strategies … are largely ideological and not based on empirical research.”

In contrast, Pickering argued, the international evidence on refugee deterrence shows the opposite: deterrence rarely works, and sometimes makes things worse. In the case of the US-Mexican border, for instance, “the data demonstrates that as apprehensions along the US-Mexico border increased, the risks taken by those crossing increased”.

Similarly, along Europe's porous Mediterranean borders, greater surveillance and harsher treatment of unauthorised arrivals has merely displaced and dispersed the risks, as asylum seekers try different ways in and resort to ever more elaborate tactics, often with aid of the very people smugglers that these measures were meant to put out of business.

The events since the Expert Panel's “no advantage” recommendation was adopted seem to confirm this. Labor ratcheted up the deterrence last year. But it hasn't led to any reduction in deaths at sea. The people smugglers have not been put out of business; business, indeed, seems to be booming. 

At the end of her article last year, Pickering explains why. “As a criminologist,” she writes, “the idea that an illicit market, such as people smuggling, can be dealt with through enforcement-related strategies and broad deterrent messages has serious limitations”.

She's right, of course. Deterrence hardly ever works in social policy. Exhibit A is the quixotic, multi-decade crusade to criminalise illicit drug use. Tough penalties for drug use and drug smuggling have also been justified in terms of saving lives. They have filled the world's prisons with drug users, but have spectacularly failed to stop people taking drugs, or to shut down international drug cartels.

Indeed, the more that countries seek to criminalise their response to cross-border drug flows, the worse their crime problems seem to get. Again, look at Mexico.

It's taken decades, but in drugs policy, many governments have at long last realised that harsh penalties merely criminalise a problem that is really social in nature. This is why Australian governments have adopted varying degrees of “harm minimisation” in their approach to illicit drugs, realising that the way to reduce the danger is to minimise the risks, rather than jail the perpetrators. 

Deterrence sounds good. It satisfies common sense ideas of crime and punishment. It allows politicians to make strident moral claims about good and evil. But it generally fails. Rudd's harsh new deterrent will probably fail too. Boats will keep coming. People will keep dying. The merchants in death will prosper.

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