Asylum seekers: a considered proposal

Zac Alstin
24 June 2011
Reproduced with Permission

If I were a refugee from a war-torn nation, I should want nothing more than to find safety, and happiness for myself and my loved ones. If the turmoil or persecution in my home country seemed likely to endure, I would seek a new life in a different country. If I could somehow expedite this process of resettlement, albeit by unofficial means, I would give it serious thought.

This logic leads genuine refugees to pay Indonesian people-smugglers to take them on a dangerous voyage to Australia. It is a logic we can all sympathise with, even though it has been the cause of great debate and conflict in Australia. So far, neither side in this debate has managed to enunciate the real problem - the reason why Australians want the boats to stop.

Most Australians have no problem with tourism, legal migration, or the resettlement of refugees from foreign refugee camps. Australians in general do not appear to have a problem with race, nor with refugees per se. Our annual intake of refugees from United Nations' camps is uncontroversial; Australia is a compassionate country. What riles the Australian public is, I suspect, the sense that our generosity is being taken for granted. The refugees arriving by boat are uninvited guests. Hence the resonance of former Prime Minister Howard's refrain, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."

It may sound petty, but acts of kindness and compassion are predicated on a sense of genuine need and ensuing gratitude. When charity or generosity are met with a sense of entitlement or taken for granted, doubts will invariably arise.

We are told that these people are genuine refugees, that they are escaping persecution, and that the risks they take to get to Australia testify to the desperation they feel.

Yet desperation cannot be the determining factor. Surely there are thousands of refugees in equal desperation but without the financial power to make the journey to Australia? We cannot blame people for wanting to seek a better life, but their doing so does not automatically indicate their greater need. What about the many refugees selected from foreign camps for humanitarian resettlement? Are they less desperate, or is their need less great? Have we been selecting the wrong refugees all this time?

Another point of confusion is the conflation of asylum and resettlement. Australia's contribution to the global refugee problem has been to offer resettlement to refugees already enjoying some form of temporary protection in other countries, such as Pakistan and Thailand. We have approached the problem of asylum seekers with the same framework, thereby guaranteeing that any genuine refugee arriving on Australian territory will be granted permanent residency.

Yet are these refugees seeking asylum or resettlement? There is a significant difference in principle. Asylum denotes immediate and pressing protection from persecution and violence, while resettlement is a solution to the problem of refugees with no long-term prospect of repatriation. It only confuses the issue to imply that refugees arriving in Australia via Indonesia are seeking immediate protection from violence and persecution. In fact they are seeking to expedite their chances of resettlement in this country. To put it simply, an Afghan refugee living in Indonesia cannot meaningfully seek asylum in Australia, because he is already safe - from persecution in Afghanistan.

Presuming they are genuine refugees, we cannot send them back to their home countries, nor are other countries likely to accept them from us without some significant inducement. The Howard government attempted to remove any incentive for refugees to undertake the voyage to Australia, and though Howard's methods appeared to succeed, many Australians were uncomfortable with the idea of punishing one group of people as a means of dissuading other, future arrivals. It is, after all, compassion toward refugees that laid the foundation for this problem in the first place. It would seem incongruous to welcome one set of refugees with generosity and kindness, while submitting another set of refugees to a variety of carefully crafted disincentives.

As if the problem were not complicated enough, we must also bear in mind the terrible risk of death inherent in the voyage to Australia, as became apparent with the Christmas Island shipwreck of December 2010. If we are providing an incentive for refugees to risk their lives, do we not bear some moral responsibility for such terrible disasters? This question has not received much serious attention. Most in favour of a compassionate response to refugees appear more concerned with their treatment on-shore than the risks entailed by their voyage.

An ideal response to the arrival of refugees would take into account these important factors: Australians are compassionate and wish to show compassion to refugees; Australians are angered by the impression that their compassion is being taken for granted or exploited; and we bear a moral responsibility to dissuade people from risking their lives on the voyage to Australia. In other words, we need to 'stop the boats' without losing our compassion for refugees, or feeling that our compassion is being abused.

Easy, right?

While in an ideal world we would be able to end the persecution and violence that creates refugees, we must content ourselves with more modest responses. Here is my considered response: the Australian government could charge refugees in Indonesia a significant fee to travel safely to Australia and enter our existing refugee processing centres, thus creating a 'contributory' refugee processing scheme.

According to the Department of Immigration, of the 5209 'Irregular Maritime Arrivals' in 2009-2010:

These figures are skewed because some refugees rely on contributions from family members and do not know the actual figure, while others pay with jewellery rather than cash, and some deny having made any payment at all. But clearly there are significant amounts of money changing hands. Australia could set a reasonable fee that competes with the people-smuggling operations and guarantees safe arrival at an Australian refugee processing facility. This service could even be run from countries such as Pakistan and Thailand, ensuring that the people-smugglers are cut out altogether.

Such a strategy would meet the requirements established: it would allow us to continue treating refugees with compassion, yet would also moderate the impression that Australian compassion is being exploited. Refugees arriving by boat would be seen to be contributing to their resettlement, to the degree that they are able, and we could accordingly abandon any punitive measures still lingering in the refugee processing system. At the same time, the dangerous voyages on leaky boats would be entirely superseded, and the people-smuggling operations would be driven out of business.

I must admit that this proposal is disturbing, even to me. But why should it be? The best way to cure resentment toward an unwelcome guest is to have him bring something to the table. Why not apply the same principle to refugees? Likewise, when it comes to non-emergency medicine we are happy to let people pay more for preferential treatment, so long as no one is put at risk. Could the same approach work for refugee resettlement? Indeed, we already allow other categories of visa applicant to contribute money - as much as $42,000 - in exchange for a shorter wait and priority treatment.

This is not an elegant, principled solution, but a messy compromise. In theory, the only losers will be the people-smugglers. In practice, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by excessive demand for the paid-refugee option, or embroiled in a competitive price war with the people-smuggling business. But it is not yet clear how many refugees really do have the necessary funds, nor do we know at what point the people-smugglers would be priced out of the business.

It might just be crazy enough to work!