On The Positive Side, Thousands More May Find Refuge

It’s been four days since Kevin Rudd announced that every single asylum seeker arriving by boat would be sent to Papua New Guinea and either resettled there or returned home.

The political class is still shocked. They shouldn’t be.

It has become an item of faith that Australian politicians are personally responsible for the choices made freely by asylum seekers, and are to blame for the risks they choose to take.

So this was inevitably how the whole thing would end – completely and formally closing down any chance to seek asylum by boat in Australia. For as long as this policy lasts, no boat person will be settled in Australia again.

Our refugee politics are very cynical. And sometimes they are xenophobic. But not always. The defining moment was the December 2010 Christmas Island boat disaster, when 48 people died as their boat was smashed against the rocks.

The anguish that tragedy caused among policymakers and the public was real.

From then on, both sides of the debate became single-mindedly focused on how to stop boat drownings. This became the sine qua non of refugee policy. Even many refugee activists began framing their arguments on this ground.

On the conservative side, many of the Howard-era arguments about national sovereignty were quietly put to bed.

The PNG plan is unlike every other plan and policy adopted until now. It is not a deterrence scheme. To describe it as deterrence is a category error. It does not make it hard or uncomfortable to enter Australia by boat. It makes it impossible.

It’s the difference between a policy of deterrence on the one hand, and a policy of exclusion.

That difference is the key to understanding why John Howard’s Pacific Solution stopped the boats – for a time.

As Tim Hatton points out, the Howard policy didn’t just reduce the number of asylum claims from those arriving on boats. It reduced the number of asylum claims from everywhere. The Pacific Solution created a perception that Australia was completely closed to refugees. The policy’s success rested on this perception.

Yet the perception couldn’t last. When it became clear the vast majority of those detained on Nauru were eventually resettled in either Australia or New Zealand, the bluff was over. Potential refugees understood a stint in detention was the price of asylum. Boat arrivals started picking up from 2006 onwards, as this parliamentary document demonstrates.

With every iteration of asylum policy over the last few decades it has been a reasonable bet that if you hop on a boat you could end up – eventually, and not without taking some risk and suffering some hardship – receiving refugee status in Australia.

Kevin Rudd’s PNG plan puts an end to that. It replaces the asylum gamble with the certainty of a trip to Papua New Guinea.

Is the PNG plan cruel? Absolutely. But let’s not be revisionist. The status quo is extremely cruel as well. It is designed to be cruel.

The “no advantage” policy, introduced by Julia Gillard in 2012, has left thousands of people in limbo. This policy was never fully fleshed out. That was the point. Boat people were to be left in the Australian community for an unknown period. They weren’t allowed to work. Their miserable uncertainty was supposed to discourage others from coming. It didn’t.

No advantage was going to get worse. The Coalition immigration spokesperson floated sending no advantage asylum seekers to work camps. The Labor immigration minister thought that was a very interesting idea.

For nearly a decade Australia has had the worst policy combination possible: our border controls are both punitive and ineffectual.

For all the political anguish about drownings off the Australian coast, the PNG scheme does nothing to make global refugee trails any safer.

Asylum seeker deaths are heartbreakingly common. One estimate has 17,306 people dying trying to enter Europe between 1993 and 2012. Border patrol statistics record around 400 deaths on the US-Mexico border every year.

These figures are understated. In their book Globalization and Borders, the Australian criminologists Leanne Weber and Sharon Pickering point out that for every body that washes ashore in a first world country, two bodies are never recovered.

Unauthorised migrants drown while swimming rivers. They suffocate in cramped spaces. They dehydrate while crossing deserts. They are killed in vehicle accidents. Such tragedies can occur long before the migrants arrive at a first world border to be counted.

Kevin Rudd will not reduce the number of people willing to risk their lives for a better life. They will just risk their lives elsewhere, safely away from our guilt-ridden politicians.

That’s not important if you consider stopping the boats to be the sole fundamental goal of Australia’s asylum policy.

But there are alternative goals: finding a safe haven for people in need, increasing the migration intake, or lowering barriers to the free movement of people.

If those goals appeal then the most important thing about the PNG plan was contained in a virtual footnote to Kevin Rudd’s press conference last Friday. The government is looking at increasing the total refugee intake from 20,000 a year to 27,000 a year.

The intake was just 13,000 a few years ago.

For all that has been said about the PNG deal, that increase would be a very good thing. Seven thousand more people safe and free in a rich developed country.