Boundless Pains to Share

Australia disgraced itself a fortnight ago, or rather Kevin Rudd’s new government did, although as his move to outsource asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea seems a surefire vote-winner there’s plenty of blame to go round. I railed impotently in a Metafilter thread about the move, and figure I may as well reproduce that impotence here. What follows are my (edited) comments from the thread. Although I started out writing about the country in the third person, I switched to “we” and “our”, even though I’m not living there now, because using “over there” language in this context felt wrong.


It’s all tied up in the myth of “queue jumping”: that asylum seekers are cutting in line ahead of all those people patiently waiting to migrate to Australia (who will inevitably arrive by plane, because only the desperate arrive nowadays by boat). This goes hand-in-hand with the idea of “illegal immigrants”. Both notions ignore the entire premise of asylum seeking and granting refugee status. When it comes to asylum seekers, there is no queue: a country could get a dozen a year, or it could get a million, but either way it’s duty bound to assess their claims to refugee status in a timely and humane manner and, if they’re upheld, to take them in or, if it’s overwhelmed by refugees (as some poorer countries are), to arrange their resettlement elsewhere.

Australia is nowhere near “overwhelmed” by refugees compared with other countries, so the idea that our arrivals need to be resettled elsewhere is bogus from the outset. But this new policy is more offensive than that: it evades our responsibilities under the UN Refugee Convention by picking and choosing who is an “acceptable” asylum seeker purely on the basis of their method of arrival, rather than the substance of their claim:

The myth that onshore applicants take places away from offshore applicants does have some basis in truth. However, this is ... the direct result of Australian Government policy. The onshore and offshore components of Australia's refugee program are numerically linked, which means that every time an onshore applicant is granted a protection visa, a place is deducted from the offshore program. The linking policy blurs the distinction between Australia's obligations as a signatory to the Refugee Convention (addressed through the onshore component) and our voluntary contribution to the sharing of international responsibility for refugees for whom no other durable solution is available (addressed through the offshore component). The perception that there is a "queue" which onshore applicants are trying to evade is created by a policy choice which could easily be changed. No other country in the world links its onshore and offshore programs in this way. (Refugee Council of Australia 2010)


One of the most disturbing things about Rudd’s new policy is that it’s being sold to the electorate as harm-reduction (to stop people drowning on boats) when a lot of the harm has resulted from Australian government policies in the first place. Even if enabling safe passage to Australia by relaxing visa restrictions for air travellers or encouraging the use of seaworthy vessels did result in more onshore arrivals of asylum seekers, Australia would still have some control over numbers of new settlers: when our immigrant numbers outnumber refugees ten to one, we have plenty of scope to decrease the former to compensate for increases in the latter. Of course, that would require an open acknowledgement that immigrants and refugees are distinct, and an open discussion about what the so-called “queue” really means.

The whole “we’re full” argument is moot. If we really thought we were full, we would allow no new settlers and would scrap the baby bonus. What Australia is doing is picking and choosing. Refugees are being deemed the wrong kind of new settlers, immigrants the right kind. We have less control over the kinds of people among the former than the latter.

Anyone who knows the first thing about Australian migration knows that this impulse to control the nature of new arrivals has a deeply disturbing history. White Australia was also a “we’re full” policy—if we let the wrong people in, the argument went, we’ll be overrun—as well as an obviously racist one, the “wrong people” in that case being Asian. Just because Australia nowadays will let people of any race in as immigrants doesn’t make this new refugee policy less disturbing.

For one thing, official migration channels favour certain kinds of people: family reunion favours people from nations already heavily represented here; skills-based criteria favour people from countries where those skills are more easily acquired (guess which). This may not be racist in intent, but can end up racially biased in effect.

Refugees upset that careful control by arriving according to the whims of fate. But just because they may not have family in Australia or degrees or huge wads of cash shouldn’t make them undesirable. For one thing, a refugee has already demonstrated they have the drive to try to make a bad situation better, by getting the hell away from danger and fleeing to another country, even if the voyage is fraught with danger itself. In choosing Australia they’re voting with their feet for a country whose values appeal more to them than the alternatives.

Australia has a responsibility to help them if our own military intervention has helped create the conditions they’re fleeing (as in Vietnam in the 1970s, or Afghanistan today.) And Australia has a responsibility to any refugees because we signed up to a UN convention, and want to think of ourselves as moral international actors.

Rudd’s new policy lets Australia cherry-pick all its new settlers, whether from the pool of migrant applicants or the pool of worldwide refugees living in countries that can’t cope—onshore arrivals by plane being effectively controlled by the visa system. It doesn’t matter whether the officials in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship, or even MPs, are noble and non-racist people themselves: a cherry-picking system will always end up favouring certain groups over others. The previous policy already let Australia cherry-pick 90% of new settlers, and limit the refugee percentage to 10%, but even that wasn’t deemed good enough. The whole thing is profoundly selfish while purporting to be magnanimous, which doesn’t cast the ALP in any sort of good light.

Arguments from environmental grounds are beside the point until Australia closes the doors on all immigration and not just refugees. (Possibly also on tourism, to avoid overstayers. How about we just cover the country in a giant dome with a single locked door?) And they’re pretty ironic, because Australia’s refugee numbers are nothing compared with what’s to come: thousands of climate refugees this century, not just from distant countries but from our near neighbours. As one of the highest carbon emitters in the world per capita (even leaving aside coal exports), these will be problems significantly of our own making, so we’ll hardly be able to argue that we have no responsibility to them, either.

When the citizens of our former colony of PNG arrive in boats and claim refugee status because climate change has made their country a basket-case, will we send them to PNG? Will we tell them it’s to prevent others from dying on the perilous voyage between PNG and the Torres Strait Islands?

Of course, many Australian opponents of refugee-settlement and immigration are climate-change deniers as well, so this prospect holds no fear for them. But for others of us, this is about considering how we prepare for decades of climate disruption and the resulting movement of people worldwide. Do we really think we can close the gates on that?

Never mind: Rudd’s Regional Resettlement Arrangement is only for twelve months, “subject to review on an annual basis through the Australia-Papua New Guinea Ministerial Forum”, and in the long-term is probably more hostage to PNG’s domestic politics than Australia’s. So it’s really just a cynical political exercise contrary to values the ALP is supposed to hold designed to win it the support of those who would switch their vote from Abbott over this one issue. How could anyone have a problem with that?


Australians don’t like to admit to themselves (ourselves, I would say, but I do try to think about this myself) that preferring one group of random applicants for settlement (immigrants, visitors arriving by plane on a visa who turn out to have a valid claim for refugee status, or resettled refugees in an amount of our choosing) over another group of random applicants for settlement (refugees who arrive any which way) may have a basis in unfortunate personal beliefs that may or may not begin with R. Oh, sure, we say that we’re looking for the best and brightest with the skills that the country needs. How do we know what a refugee who turns up on our shores can offer our country in the long run? They or their personal descendents could turn out to be immensely valuable to our society, but if we ship them elsewhere we’ll never know. Meanwhile, that bloke with a PhD from Fancy Pants University in Whitelandia could turn out to be a selfish jerk who leaves his personal fortune to that same university when he carks it. Randomness, it’s all randomness, and we don’t want to admit it.

We forget that the supposed reasons for our choices may not be the reasons the rest of the world supposes.

31 July 2013 · Politics