The ABC aired some interesting interviews this morning with refugees who have been stuck in Indonesia.

The following quote from an Iraqi refugee will no doubt be used by those who are arguing that the Labor government’s ‘softening’ of their policy towards asylum seekers is responsible for the recent arrivals of asylum seekers in boats:

“Kevin Rudd – he’s changed everything about refugee. If I go to Australia now, different, different,” a second asylum seeker told the ABC.  “Maybe accepted but when John Howard, president, Australia, he said come back to Indonesia.”

For those who think the only issue which counts in this debate is stopping refugees getting to Australia, this may be all they need to hear.

But for anyone who believes the issue is to find more workable overall solutions for asylum seekers, or even those who believe we should adopt whatever approach is most cost-effective for Australia, the ABC story highlights some other much more significant things.

Amongst the refugees interviewed by the ABC are some who were towed back to Indonesia by Australian Navy vessels in 2001.  They have been stuck in Indonesia ever since, at Australia’s expense (on top of the original very high expense of using our Navy on the role of doorman or bouncer on the high seas).

Asylum seekers told the ABC they have had to wait over three years to have a refugee assessment done by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before they can even start to hope for permanent resettlement.  Those who had their refugee status verified have also still had to wait years and years.

Given those circumstances, it would be absurd to expect that every refugee would be prepared to sit and wait, rather than try other options.

Australia is funding some of the operations of the UNHCR and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Indonesia.  As I’ve previously said, it is sensible to provide assessment, support and resettlement options for refugees and asylum seekers in Indonesia so they do not feel the need to take dangerous boat voyages to Australia, and it makes sense for Australia to fund this.

But this will only work if realistic opportunities for resettlement are provided.  If Australia still refuses to take any, or only small numbers, of people found to be refugees in Indonesia, then all we are doing is paying money to warehouse refugees somewhere else.  This just becomes an endless drain on Australian resources, while doing nothing either for the refugees or for our own economy, as we do not gain the benefits of their labour and consumption which would occur if we just accepted and resettled them in the first place.

It might make political sense, but there is very little economic sense or social benefit from spending more money to detain and warehouse refugees than we would in resettling them and gaining the benefit of their productive participation in the Australian economy and community. 

Refugees are a net economic benefit to Australia over time, especially if adequate support is provided on first arrival to assist with settlement and integration.  Paying money to warehouse them in Indonesia, Nauru or anywhere else is using taxpayers’ money to solve a perceived political problem, while ignoring the real human problem.

If the support to UNHCR and IOM is inadequate, and the resettlement options minimal or non-existent, then it is not a long-term solution, just a short-term political sop to people who do not recognise that accepting refugees is not a burden to Australia, and believe the debate is solely about stopping refugees getting here, with no consideration to what happens to them instead.