Being Tough On Refugees Is Pretty Weak

We’re all just like Pavlov’s dogs. Last week, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave the Pacific Solution a quick polish, rebranded it the Indonesian Solution, and immediately everybody started yelling at Philip Ruddock.

Yep, if it wasn’t clear by now, ideological and partisan divisions over asylum seekers and boat people are deeply entrenched. But here’s the problem. Even from a liberal, libertarian or even conservative perspective, the case for being tough on border control just isn’t that strong.

Immigration is a good thing, for migrants and for the places migrants go. Aren’t people who are willing to risk their lives on boats propelled by motorbike engines to get to a society with social and economic freedom exactly the sort of people we want in Australia? (I can think of a lot of Australians I’d rather kick out.)

The sanest case for strict borders is a paternalistic argument that refugees need to be deterred from making the dangerous journey by boat to Australia. But it’s not convincing. Isn’t the danger of the journey a pretty significant deterrent itself? Refugees risk their lives and permanent separation from their families – a decision normally made under pain of imminent death.

So exactly what are we trying to deter? Refugees aren’t just going to quit being refugees.

It’s not clear whether deterrence even works. Australian refugee volumes correspond to global and regional refugee trends. That this recent surge of refugees is mostly Sri Lankan is because of the war there, not because of the Migration Amendment Bill 2009 (which hasn’t even been passed in Parliament).

But most damningly, deterrence leads to some atrociously illiberal, inhumane policies. Taking deterrence to its absurdly logical conclusion, in 1992 the federal Labor government decided to bill refugees the cost of their detention. Nobody in a liberal democracy should be locked up and charged for the privilege. To its enduring credit, the Rudd Government eliminated this punitive measure in September.

Still, Rudd seems eager to depict his Government as tough on refugees. The idea that we should punish those who do make it to Australia alive, to dissuade others from trying, quickly descends into outright cruelty.

There’s a deeper issue at stake about asylum seekers than just migration levels. Boat people force us to confront the classic opposition between the nation state and the universal rights of the individual.

John Howard’s line – that his government would choose who came to the country and the circumstances in which they came – has become the ultimate expression of state sovereignty and the supremacy of executive government. His doctrine has been implicitly shared by Australian governments for a century.

Governments have treated immigration as a kind of fruit and veg shop, where they can rifle through the available human produce to pick only the ”best” foreign stock. Fifty years ago, it was white migrants. Now it’s skilled migrants – the unskilled are left for other countries.

Obviously we’re a long way from the liberal ideal of global free movement of people to complement global free trade.

Paul Kelly’s book, The March of Patriots, quotes a Howard government official, reflecting on the navy’s policy of taking stranded people to the nearest port, saying ”the maritime industry in Australia [has] essentially a Left attitude” – as if the moral mandate to protect lives above all else was just some silly leftie thing, like peace studies.

But individual liberty stands implacably opposed to the sort of nationalistic state sovereignty which has been the foundation of our immigration and refugee policies. Those who place liberty at the front of their politics should be against harsh border measures, not for them.

According to some, there are 10,000 refugees massing on foreign shores, just waiting for the right moment to sneak across the ocean. Putting aside the dubious evidence for that figure, yes: 10,000 people would be a lot to squeeze into a living room. But the Australian continent is quite large. The settler arrival figures increased by nearly that amount just this year – from 149,000 in 2007-08 to 158,000 in 2008-09 – and we hardly heard a peep from anybody.

So if 10,000 refugees is the worst-case scenario, it’s not that worst a case. With 15.2 million refugees worldwide, the few thousand who make it to Australia are pretty insignificant. No one has a moral obligation to remain in the country of their birth. And no country has a moral right to deny anyone the chance to improve their living standards, or save their own lives.