While the focus has been on protesting detainees of late, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat is significantly down on this time last year.

By the end of April 2010, over 2100 people had arrived by boat to claim asylum. To the end of April this year, the total was 940. March and April last year had seen 672 and 727 maritime arrivals; this year it was 170 and 356.

The key reason is push factors. According to UNHCR data — which include all asylum seekers, not just maritime arrivals — asylum claims peaked in Australia this time last year, and have been falling ever since. However, in Europe the numbers of asylum seekers rose over the course of 2010; outside Europe they were flat or rose only very slightly. Why did Australia defy the European trend? Because the make-up of the world’s asylum seekers changed (as it is always changing).

There was a big surge in asylum seekers in 2010 from eastern Europe and particularly Serbia — 28,000 Serbians sought asylum elsewhere in 2010, making that country the world’s single biggest source of refugees, even ahead of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Plainly, Serbian asylum seekers don’t come to Australia — unlike Afghan refugees, for example, there are plenty of signatories to the UN Refugee Convention nearby. Only five Serbs claimed asylum here in 2010. Instead, they go elsewhere in Europe, which is why Europe’s asylum seeker numbers went up while Australia’s fell over 2010.

The UNHCR numbers also show that China continues to be a big source of asylum seekers for Australia. In 2010, Afghanistan only narrowly edged out China as the main source of asylum seekers for Australia, which China was in 2009. But because nearly all Chinese applicants arrive via airports, they’re entirely absent from the asylum seeker debate, blotted out by our weird obsession with maritime arrivals.

For the Government, this makes for a difficult story to tell. Emphasising push factors is fine when asylum seeker numbers are rising, but for a government seeking to look proactive, letting push factors get the credit for falling asylum seeker numbers isn’t enough. Further, the Government is stuck with the problem of processing last year’s surge in numbers, which is driving most of the political problems Chris Bowen has to deal with, including protesters on roofs and providing new detention facilities on the mainland, where it’s economic to do so, rather than on islands or in other countries, where it costs a bomb.

Meanwhile, as every person and his or her dog has pointed out, Labor remains caught between the send-them-all-home rhetoric of the Coalition and the open-borders rhetoric of the Greens, who were keen to seize on Bowen’s flagging of greater options for protection visas for successful asylum claimants who have been convicted of crimes to suggest it was back to Howard-era Temporary Protection Visas.

The comparison doesn’t stack up and it’s dishonest of anyone who knows about TPVs to make the comparison. TPVs were intended to act as a deterrent to coming here at all. They sent a signal that even if you made it to Australia, even if we accepted that you had a legitimate claim to asylum, you’d get short shrift from us — you’d only be allowed to stay temporarily. The problem of course was that TPVs acted in exactly the opposite manner to that intended.

Far from deterring asylum seekers coming by boat, they encouraged more, because successful asylum seekers had no rights to bring their families here, requiring them to make the same treacherous journey. Rarely has there been a clearer policy failure, and rarely a more costly one, in the hundreds of women and children lost on Siev X.

The idea that governments shouldn’t have the capacity to send home asylum seekers who break Australian laws is nonsensical. There’s even a moral argument that breaking Australian law immediately forfeits any claim to asylum whatsoever. But the greater flexibility Bowen flagged doesn’t go that far; it merely proposes a mechanism by which successful asylum seekers who break the law can be sent home if the basis on which they’ve successfully applied for asylum changes.

Like TPVs, it’s a deterrent, but a deterrent from breaking the law, not from coming here in the first place.

The problem for Bowen, and Labor more generally, is that it remains wedded to the logic of mandatory detention, a policy implemented by the Keating Government in response to waves of Chinese asylum seekers in the early 1990s, most of whom were simply economic refugees with no valid claim in Australia under the Refugee Convention. Mandatory detention of those who, contrarily, have a high likelihood of successfully claiming asylum (which, evidence suggests, boat arrivals do) permanently locates the asylum seeker debate on a battlefield where Labor can never win.

It will never out-tough the Coalition, it will never please progressives, and detention itself feeds community sentiment that those detained are in some sense criminals, especially when those detained — whether they have genuine claims or not — are driven by frustration at processing delays to lash out.

It’s another example of how this Government is highly effective at ensuring it permanently fights political battles on the turf chosen by its opponents, whether on the Right or on the Left. And why it remains hostage to external push factors in dealing with the political impact of what is, in a global context, an entirely trivial refugee issue.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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