Seeking a political crisis

“Stop the boats, we must” stated Tony Abbott last week, announcing the Coalition’s intention to bring back temporary protection visas for asylum seekers.

Must we? It’s not clear why. This has all the hallmarks of a concocted political crisis.

Certainly, 4,893 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2009-10, a significant increase on the previous year’s 1,000 arrivals. According to the federal opposition that’s the most ever, higher than it was before the Howard government introduced temporary protection visas nearly a decade ago.

Sounds like a lot, unless you recall the federal opposition has also been claiming Australia currently has total net migration of 300,000 people per year. Or recall the fact that there are 50,000 people already in the country who have over-stayed their visas – as they are not seeking asylum, this is true ‘illegal immigration’. If we really want to secure our borders, we’ll have to eliminate tourist visas first.

It’s also worth noting the large number of boat arrivals to Australia in 2009-10 is not actually the largest influx in any 12-month period ever. If we measure by calendar years, rather than by financial years, 5,516 people arrived in 2001.

Accounting trickery, sure. But comparing calendar years is no more arbitrary than comparing financial years. Neither has our refugee program as a whole gotten out of control.

Australia’s humanitarian intake has remained stable for the last twenty years, teetering around 13,000 humanitarian visas granted per annum. Our intake has been much higher in the past. Under the Fraser government, this figure was well over 20,000.

We could easily take more. Expanding our immigration program is hands-down the best thing we could do to help the developing world. Migrants send money and skills back home. Allowing more people to move freely across national borders to work would be overwhelmingly more beneficial than anything we could do with foreign aid.

Anyway, the number of asylum seekers who come by boat is a tiny proportion of the masses of people who come through Australia every year. So while asylum seekers are a controversial political football, they are not a serious policy problem.

You wouldn’t know that from all the bellicose political rhetoric. After one boat tragically exploded in April last year, Kevin Rudd claimed “People smugglers are engaged in the world’s most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth”.

The Prime Minister is becoming known for his hyperbole. But he misses the serious point. We mustn’t pretend trying to stop people from fleeing persecution is being compassionate.

Refugees are active participants in the choice to risk the long journey to Australia. Their decision to take the risk comes from their wish to escape and build a better life.

The dreadful risks of taking a boat to Australia are an indication of the desperation of the passengers, not of the depravity of those who they pay to help them. After all, the big disincentive to take the dangerous journey is the dangerous journey itself. Not the bureaucratic hurdles which the government throws in the asylum seekers’ way.

More than eighty per cent of boat arrivals to Australia this year have come from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Both countries have been in strife, and are nearby. It’s not just us: since 2008 the rest of the world has experienced substantial surges in Afghani and Sri Lankan refugees as well.

The opposition’s proposed reintroduction of temporary protection visas would do very little to alter the calculated risk asylum seekers make when they hop on the boats. But it could do considerable harm once those refugees arrive.

A source of much conservative and right-of-centre unease with refugee programs (and immigration programs in general) is that they can be a drain on the welfare system. They fear migrants often fail to integrate fully into the Australian economy; that they will not make productive members of society.

If anything, temporary protection visas would make this worse.

Refugees with temporary status are substantially less likely to find stable work than refugees with permanent status. Employers are understandably reluctant to hire and train someone whose residency is insecure.

And migrants left out of the workforce struggle to participate in Australian society. Indeed, as they may be unable to gain permanent residency once their temporary status has expired, refugees have less of an incentive to try. Learning English, for example, is a substantial investment. Refugees are less likely to make the investment if their residency could be revoked.

This should be as much a concern about Australia’s social cohesion as it is about the wellbeing of individual refugees. After all, we want refugees to join the Australian community. Making refugee status temporary – telling them their stay here is only provisional, or even transitory – does nothing but undermine their integration.