Forget Compassion – Our Better Angels Aren’t Listening

With its Malaysia solution the Gillard government is about to implement one of the most illiberal asylum seeker policies since mandatory detention was invented. But the response from refugee advocates has been tired and musty.

In The Age on Monday, Malcolm Fraser said the major parties’ approach was an ”appeal to meanness”. Earlier, John Menadue, a former immigration department secretary, urged politicians to ”make the case for compassion and humanity”.

Releasing a report to ”break the stalemate” over asylum seekers last week, the progressive Centre for Policy Development called for ”constructive bi-partisanship”. If there’s anything the last decade of debate over refugees has shown us, calling for leadership and our ”better angels” has failed. The policies have, if anything, become harder.

And that’s not entirely the fault of political demagogues; it’s because nobody’s willing to admit just how intractable the refugee problem really is.

In June, the SBS reality TV show Go Back to Where You Came From showed this clearly. If you already support asylum seekers, it was one of the television highlights of the year. Yet the producers failed to convince some of the program’s participants.

Certainly, those who had enthusiastically admitted their views on asylum were racist had softened by the end of the three episodes. But the participants who were originally worried soft border policies create an incentive for people to travel on dangerous boats remained unmoved.

If relying on compassion for refugees couldn’t convince people who were shown first-hand the hardness of refugee camps, then what hope does it have for the rest of the country? No doubt there are people who oppose boat people because they just don’t like foreigners. But the majority seem to have serious questions about the unintended consequences of the government’s policy.

Even the Centre for Policy Development’s report quietly granted the premises of the refugee sceptics: that we must focus on how we can deter asylum seekers from travelling on dangerous boats.

Yet no serious study has found domestic policy can have more than a marginal impact on refugee flows. A 2009 paper in The Economic Journal found that, at most, countries could deter perhaps a third of potential refugees.

Evidence suggests asylum seeker flows to Australia are largely out of our hands. But governments don’t like to admit they’re subject to forces beyond their control, and oppositions won’t let them try. It’s hardly a surprise that professional legislators think legislation is both the problem and the solution. This is also why another major argument – that our asylum intake is so small we shouldn’t worry about it – is counterproductive.

It is precisely Australia’s tiny numbers of boat people that create an impression we can do something to change them. Almost every national border in the world is porous. Ours is easily monitored. For Europe or the United States, the sheer volume of refugees getting in makes any belief that domestic policy change could halt the flow seem faintly ludicrous.

Yes, there are a lot of popular myths and misconceptions about refugees. There is no queue for boat people to jump. It is not illegal to seek asylum.

Nevertheless, those myths are beside the point. Asylum seekers are a subset of a bigger issue.

There are millions of people who could have a better, more productive life in the West but are prevented from doing so by immigration policies. This is the real issue, but it suits no one to raise it. By preferring silly rhetoric about the ”essential goodness” of Australians, the refugee lobby is shooting itself in the foot.

We could embrace a renewed policy of mass migration to Australia, yet refugee advocates avoid over-thinking Australia’s immigration philosophy.

The only alternative is to admit there probably is no sustainable policy that would keep asylum numbers limited and manageable. So governments will just keep stumbling through, cyclically hardening and softening their approaches. And, if past form is any guide, our debate about asylum seekers will go nowhere.