The easiest target to hit is not always the right target. This might be said of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s desire to see people smugglers “rot in hell”. People smuggling is a response to regulatory or policy failure on the part of developed world governments. Despite the fact that the global movement of people fleeing oppression and life threatening situations around the globe each year now amounts to around 20 million, the procedures that govern this movement are incapable of meeting the demand.

For example, if you and your family are living in a state of constant well founded fear each day in rural Afghanistan and you want to come to Australia, then to go through the official channel is simply impossible. There is no Australian embassy in Kabul, so you cross over into Pakistan and head to the Australian High Commission in Islamabad. It can take up to three years to have your case processed by the Embassy.

In the meantime you will be approached by a number of the thousands of people smuggling agents who work out of Islamabad, who will offer you a deal that no person in the position you and your family are in could refuse — give us a large wad of cash and we will put you on a boat to Australia, via Indonesia.

If you get near Australia you will be taken to Christmas Island processed, and if you are like the vast majority of other people who risk their lives to reach Australia on a crowded boat in hostile waters, then you will be allowed to stay because you are accepted as refugee. In all you might be able to get to Australia in less than half the time it might take to process your case through the Australian embassy in Pakistan. It’s a no brainer really.

While people smugglers are driven by nothing more than greed and exploiting vulnerable people, ironically sometimes their actions save lives because they remove people from danger zones more quickly than can be done through the official channels.

One of the reasons why people smugglers do such a flourishing business is because the developed world is grossly hypocritical in the way it deals with the issue. In the US and Europe government officials have for a decade been regularly turning a blind eye to people smuggling activities because migrants from Latin America in the case of the US, or Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics in the case of Europe, have been providing a useful cheap source of labour in industries like agriculture and construction.

In Australia, the Howard and Rudd governments bend over backwards to cut red tape and processes in allowing in Pacific Islanders and other temporary migrants to meet labour and skill shortages.

Mr Rudd and his colleagues in Canberra can fulminate about people smugglers but nothing will change until the developed world changes its approach to developing world migrants, including asylum seekers.

As Philippe Legrain, an international migration expert put it back in 2007, “our immigration controls, which are not only costly and cruel, but also ineffective and counterproductive”.

Mr Rudd likes to strut upon the global stage. Perhaps his next project can be a global reform of processes and laws that will lessen the market opportunity for people smugglers.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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