The furore that erupts whenever a flotilla of refugee boats threatens our coastline usually focuses on the following issues:

  • the perfidy of evil people smugglers
  • apparent queue jumping by immigrants
  • security of our borders
  • threats to Australian jobs

Yet, apart from the occasional reference to employment and welfare issues, very little attention is paid to the broader economic issues surrounding boat people. This is curious, because any rational analysis suggests that countries such as Australia benefit extraordinarily from immigration (illegal or otherwise), often to the detriment of the source countries from which the arrivals come.

Given that Australian-born women bear an average of just 1.9 children (i.e. below the natural replacement rate), without migrants our population would fail to grow. While this prospect might please hard-edged environmentalists, the reality is that the housing market of which we’re all so fond, depends greatly on ever-increasing demand.

And without continued strong growth in house prices, a major component of Australian banks’ balance sheets would deteriorate badly. Remember how keen the federal government was this time last year to create the so-called “Ruddbank” in an effort to prop up commercial property values? Well, the residential sector is substantially larger and therefore more important.

Productivity is another aspect of the economy about which politicians of both major hues love to talk. New migrants, we are often told, are often considered a drag on productivity because their language skills and education lag behind the cutting edge standards of the homegrown workforce.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. Because recent entrants to the employment market are usually forced to fill jobs at the bottom end of the economic pile (e.g. taxi driving, rubbish collecting, cleaning, etc) they actually free up their better-educated Australian counterparts to engage in more productive enterprise. And this is undoubtedly positive for the economy as a whole, notwithstanding the protests often made by union officials fearful that such new entry-level workers may not appreciate the benefits of handing a proportion of their wages to officials keen to attend Labor Party conferences.

Related to any discussion on productivity is the issue of personal endeavour — work ethic, if you like. It may be stating the obvious, but any person prepared to undertake a dangerous journey across vast open water in a small and leaky boat is likely to apply him or herself to whatever job they eventually receive in a most diligent fashion. Critics of boat people often describe such immigrants as cheats who’ve somehow bucked the orderly queue for Australian visas that apparently exist in places such as Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sri Lanka (at least the bit the Tamils used to hold) and Iraq. A distinction is usually raised between political refugees and economic ones, with the former receiving official approval (albeit grudgingly) over the latter.

Economically speaking, however, it is the economic refugees we should be welcoming. As a group they’ll work hard to secure a future denied them in their country of origin. Where cultural differences exists, these will gradually dissipate as the next generation of children with migrant parents grow up with Australia as their only home. And we might find we get a fair smattering of well-educated teachers, doctors, engineers, and so on, even if we’re slow to recognise their qualifications.

If none of the above arguments is persuasive about the economic benefits of letting boat people in, then consider this: the countries from which they come are undoubtedly left poorer by the departure of their most desperate and, given the fees apparently charged by people smugglers, most financially able citizens. Those countries’ losses can become our gains, if only we can overcome our own fears and prejudices.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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