At Risk Of An Asylum Seeker Underclass

A reductio ad absurdum is an argumentative ploy to show a proposition is wrong by taking it to its most absurd extreme.

Australia’s asylum seeker debate is one great big reductio ad absurdum.

Take, for instance, the fact that Australia has excised itself from its own migration zone. Or that Australia now has a policy of indefinite imprisonment solely because legislators can’t close a bureaucratic loophole.

Here’s the latest madness.

The Government has released 16,000 asylum seekers into the community as they wait for their refugee claims to be processed. The asylum seekers receive around $220 a week from Centrelink. Most of this goes towards rent. But they’re on bridging visas which stipulate that they’re not allowed to get jobs.

And nearly half of those asylum seekers are subject to the Gillard Government’s “no advantage” rule, which means they could be in limbo like this for a very long time. They will have to wait as long as they would have if they’d remained in a refugee camp. That could be many years.

It’s all a bit of a problem.

On Sunday Opposition spokesman for immigration Scott Morrison suggested on Channel Seven that, since these asylum seekers are hanging around not doing much, why not have them work for the dole?

Under his plan, if asylum seekers in the community want food and accommodation, they’ll have to work on “community projects”. And they’ll be paid in vouchers, not cash.

Morrison’s proposal cobbles together two existing programs with vastly different purposes.

The vouchers part of the policy superficially resembles the income management program imposed on some welfare recipients, most famously as part of the Northern Territory intervention.

But income management is for people who – the Government believes – are unable to manage their finances. Its purpose is to “encourage participation and to increase … financial literacy”.

Income management is infantilising. This proposal is worse. If asylum seekers on bridging visas are capable of working, it ought to be assumed they’re capable of household budgeting too.
Similarly, work for the dole is supposed to encourage welfare recipients to join the workforce.

Yet they want to enter the workforce. It’s just their visa conditions make work illegal.

Without the traditional justifications for income management and work for the dole, all that is left is a proposal to force a class of foreigners to clean gutters and tidy parks for food.
Would this be like prison work? Or is more like indentured servitude? Forced labour? The Channel Seven report speculates they might live in “group accommodation, possibly work camps”.

Just as damning was the quick approval of the proposal by the Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor: “I’d like to see [asylum seekers] participate and contribute and I think it’s therefore worth considering”.

Recall that Brendan O’Connor has spent the last few months declaring how concerned he is about hypothetical cases of people who hold 457 visas being exploited. Apparently O’Connor thinks it’s ok if the Government exploits people who are holding bridging visas.

Anyway, enough about political hypocrisy.

A few years ago I argued in the Drum that most of Australia’s asylum seeker problems are the fault of the United Nations 1951 refugee convention.

The convention divides migrant populations into two groups. There are those who are moving across borders for economic reasons. Then there are those who are moving across borders because they have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted” – and are therefore eligible for refugee status if they seek asylum in a signatory country.

The former group is assumed to be independent and responsible for their own upkeep. They are supposed to get jobs to get by. For this group, migration is seen as the result of individual choice.

The latter group is assumed to need protection. They become wards of the state, given accommodation, welfare, and social services. Here, migration as sort of global safety net.

But the division is false and misleading. If you browse the Refugee Review Tribunal decisions you’ll see how it collapses when it meets real life.

The problems with the division are magnified when countries deal with those who are seeking asylum – in other words, those who have not been yet granted official refugee status.

The convention gives refugees the same “right to engage in wage-earning employment” as any other citizen.

But we haven’t granted asylum seekers their refugee status yet. And – because they say they came to our shores for protection, not jobs – the Government has decided they should be prohibited from working while they wait.

Add to all that the punishing indeterminacy of “no advantage”, and this is Catch 22 stuff.

The Coalition’s proposal would make the asylum seekers’ legal limbo even worse.

Freezing foreign migrants out of the normal workforce creates exactly the sort of resentful underclass that conservative sceptics of immigration worry about. Immigration policy design can have severe social consequences down the track. Just ask Germany.

We’re living through a great age of migration. We’re going to have to start thinking seriously about what that means.