I walked from Slovakia to Poland yesterday. Not because I’m on a hiking trip, but because that’s the easiest way to get across the mountains to Krakow: bus to the Slovakian terminus at Lysa Polana, then walk about 150 metres to the stop in the Polish half of Lysa Polana and catch another bus down the mountains on the other side.

Both countries are adherents to the Schengen agreement, so no guards, no Customs inspection, no border formalities of any sort. It’s how all frontiers ought to be.

Contrast with the Ukrainian-Slovakian border, which I crossed at the weekend and that involved a wait of at least two hours. Not that the process itself took more than a few minutes — two officials studied my passport and a third prodded briefly at the contents of my suitcase — but the post seemed hopelessly understaffed for the volume of traffic. (Either that or their work practices were incredibly bad.) Nearly all the time was spent waiting in line.

And therein lies an important truth: the burden of border controls, like many other things governments do, lies not just in the actual rules but in the way they are enforced, and in the resources directed to their implementation.

The Slovak government presumably wants to limit the number of people flowing across its border from Ukraine and beyond — in parts of the EU, the eastern European hordes have assumed a mythical status almost rivalling the Arabs. In addition to the formal controls it has in place to do that, a powerful deterrent is just the time consumed in the process.

Conversely, the Slovaks and others in the same position could, without making any official move towards open borders, make a huge practical difference just by employing more Customs and Immigration officials and getting them to work more efficiently.

The moral for Australia’s debate on “border protection” should be clear. The crisis in our detention centres is mostly a matter of processing: the majority of the people there are eventually found to be genuine refugees, but the government insists on detaining them while it works that out, and it takes it an inordinate amount of time to do so.

One might put this down (no doubt with some truth) to just natural government inefficiency, but it seems clear that there is also a more or less conscious motive of deterrence at work. Detention is supposed to help deter unauthorised arrivals, and the longer it’s expected to last the more of a deterrent it should be.

That may not be a view officially held by the current government — indeed, in its rhetoric the government has defended the right of refugees to seek asylum here. It is almost certainly, however, still held by the bureaucracy that actually implements policy, and which is therefore unwilling to divert resources to assist the very people it has been demonising as “illegals”.

But if the government wants to reduce the pressure on detention centres and counter the perception of a crisis, it doesn’t necessarily have to go down the politically risky route of changing the rules. It could achieve the same effect by faster processing: put more people on the job, make ASIO do its checks more quickly, and get people who really are refugees out of detention faster.

Of course, from the point of view of those who are opposed to accepting asylum seekers in the first place, that would be no improvement at all — it would be worse, precisely because it would weaken the supposed deterrent. But it would force them to be explicit about their real goals: that they want to make life intolerably difficult for people they don’t like.