Turning back boats, “illegals”, and the problems with the politics of immigration

Of late I’ve been slack and terrible and all that about blogging, to which I blame some totally viable scapegoating solution.

The topic of people arriving in Australia by boat is that, at least to me, it’s a campaign of fear and ignorance colliding with… a campaign of fear and ignorance. There’s very little attempt to analyse the situation objectively and dispassionately by both the anti-crowd (whom many suspect of being racist) and the pro-crowd (who have built their ivory tower out of papier-mache. In the interests of full disclosure; 1) my father’s family came to Australia as refugees from the former Dutch colony of Indonesia following the latter’s independence, and 2) I worked for the Department of Immigration in a role closely aligned with promoting the contested “Pacific Solution”. So I’ve actually seen the inside of the proverbial sausage factory, as it were.

Recently, the Coalition government has elected to use the terminology “illegal arrivals” to describe people arriving in Australia by boat. It’s a curious phrase; David Marr, writing in the Guardian, noted that it’s not clear how they’re illegal. All done in prissy David Marr fashion (watch ABC’s Insiders when he’s on; you get the sense he’s brilliant but an insufferable twat in person) of course. He also asserts that under the Howard government – which was also my tenure at DIAC – used this term as well. This is not correct; the terminology I remember well, because it’s so astonishingly public service that it burns an impression into your mind: “unlawful non-citizens”.

I’m conflicted here though, because just how much I can or should reveal about what we were doing back then I’m not sure of. Suffice to say that our efforts at capacity building in the region were ignored by a media that’s proving 110% of the information to pro-boat arrival types; and that no mention of the immigration officials rotating out on a two- or three-monthly basis to work in refugee camps processing asylum requests occurred during my time there. Or, in simple terms – I’m willing to bet most people hold an opinion on boat arrivals, but that the opinion is missing such a substantial raft of facts and figures that it can justifiably be dismissed as adorably quaint.

Instead, what I will do is this – make a case for why a harsh and unwelcoming regime awaits anyone who attempts the journey by sea is more of a humanitarian effort than people realise.

I’ll start with another caveat – I left DIAC in March 2008 so my information is, at this point, 5 years out of date. I’ve not read any of the Department’s annual reports (but to be fair, none of you have either, ha!) so nothing is adjusted for recent figures.

If you want to understand the core mechanics of what drives people to make the journey to Australia by boat, in risky and dangerous conditions, stop doing what you’re doing now which is making an emotional judgement. Your heart is for feeling, your head is for analysis so use the head. It’s not about escaping from diabolical persecution, or dreaming of the opportunities a free liberal democracy can offer.

It’s about economics. Migration itself has always been a primarily economic concept – and before you pat yourself on the back for that “a ha!” moment as you point to people fleeing war with naught but their trousers, allow me to finish – and so when both Labor and Liberal governments categorise boat arrivals as “economic migrants”, they are actually accurate and this tallies with my experiences.

Anyone who has done basic economics will know that a simple risk matrix will risk and reward on your x and y indices and the higher you go along one index, the higher you go along another creating a nice, neat diagonal line away from the start. People who have made a decision to migrate do so based on having sufficient tolerance for the risks (culture shock, language barriers, incompatibility of skills etc) in order to take advantage of the rewards (higher earnings potential; greater job satisfaction and security; better opportunities for their kids). People who elect to migrate illegally to, say, Australia take on greater risks but proportionately, they see that they will reap rewards that justify the risks.

This isn’t to say, just so it’s clear, that people who arrive by boat aren’t leaving behind a pretty awful situation – it’s not. It’s indicating that in fact it’s probably a tonne better here than there. A question needs to be asked though, and in my view it’s one that’s not asked enough – either because people don’t consider it (the ignorance component I spoke of earlier), or because people don’t want the answer.

If a person arriving by boat is a genuine refugee as defined by the UN Convention, then why have they not approached an Australian diplomatic mission directly? Let’s assume they’re Afghans (fun trivia: Every time someone talks about people from Afghanistan as “Afghanis”, which is often, they’re actually talking about the currency. The people are Afghans. You can now mock their ignorance with haughty disdain, as you know better!). And let’s assume that they worry about approaching the Australian mission in Kabul due to reprisals – a fair assumption.

To get here by boat, they have to make an overland journey which usually ends in a country we used to define as a transit country for illegal migration (as opposed to a source country). Typically this is in SE Asia. Several embassies and high commissions are accessible to these migrants along the road, but they don’t take it. Why?

Enter the service provider in the illegal migration trade. The facilitator. Colloquially best known as “snakeheads” (after a Chinese smuggling gang), these gangs operate networks to smuggle people into countries in a variety of ways. We know how this happen by boat, but it’s also possible by air. Airlines work closely with the Department (through “ALOs” or Airline Liason Officers, a rotating three month post in key source and transit airports in the region) to detect and stop this, and there’s a hefty incentive on airlines to be vigilant – if someone arrives unlawfully in Australia the airline is responsible for repatriating them.

At the time I was involved in this the usual cost per person to be smuggled by boat was around AU$50,000 per head. It’s hard to know what the cost is now; the relaxation of some of the border controls by Rudd did not lessen the risk to the operators, but rather made it more likely a person who arrived would be able to stay.

Realistically, someone exploring this option doesn’t have that kind of cash. It could be argued this only highlights their desperation but I can’t accept that argument. People in refugee camps in, say, Thailand are also desperate, but they’re not stupid about it. If you are facilitating arrival by boat for a significant sum of money, you’re likely to have to do pretty inhumane things to repay it. By which I mean, indentured servitude until the debt’s paid off, such as manual labour or sex work (I know the Department used to routinely raid brothels for such a reason).

So let’s recap. You’ve avoided refugee camps and embassies to seek out people smugglers for an extraordinary sum of money and significant risk that you could lose your life at sea. To be fair, you get some training on what to do if the Navy intercepts you – you ditch your documents and say as little as possible to deny the Department officers the chance to identify you and your nationality. You figure if they can’t prove who you are they can’t send you back and will eventually release you… right?

If the message is one that says “sorry, you will not be welcome by boat. You will not be allowed to stay. You won’t even set foot in Australia if you try”, it creates a disincentive for people to risk life, limb and liberty (I don’t mean by being put into an immigration detention facility or “IDC”; I mean by being a slave for years until you pay back your debt if you have one) in a rickety boat. As I noted earlier, we do have Department officials in refugee camps and we are one of the few nations that takes refugees in. I’d also note our net legal migration has been generally increasing each year (2009-10 it slid back from 172K to 168K persons per annum; I’ve seen no explanation for this but it may be GFC related?) so we’re hardly turning people away.

So I guess the conclusion you’d have to reach is that people arriving by boat are circumventing the existing processes for migration by claiming asylum (when they are not fleeing actual persecution) on arrival. I would find it hard to explain to someone in a camp in, say, the Lebanon, fleeing persecution from one of the competing factions in the Syrian civil war, that they have to go through a certain process and they miss out (because there’s actually a thought process behind the allocation of visas and there are quantities each year) because someone threw dice in Kabul and decided to take the boat route. To me that just creates an argument that why not go by boat. It’s easier. I hate to use the phrase “queue jumper” because of it’s unpleasant associations, but…

I won’t disagree that mandatory detention is a harsh solution, but as an effective deterrent to that kind of activity I think it kind of has to occur. Politics is about tough decisions and utilitarianism demands we sometimes make those decisions for the greater good. I would much rather that we bring in actual refugees from actual warzones (like we did in 2006/7 with the Sudanese refugees we settled in… I want to say Bathurst?) and bring in 175,000 legal migrants from all over the world who enhance the multicultural tapestry of our society than have people arrive by boat. In fact, I would rather we said to people, “look, you’re not welcome to risk yours and your families life to come here by boat. Don’t bother, we’ll turn you away… if you take that route. But if you apply through the correct channels… we look forward to your arrival and our society will be enhanced by your being in it”.

That way nobody’s being pushed aside, nobody’s risking their lives at sea, and we’re not taking on more people than we can create jobs and opportunities for. How awful.

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