welcome refugees

Today it was former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser’s turn to offer a progressive solution to boat arrivals, citing his own handling of Indo-Chinese refugees in the 1970s. He called for a regional processing centre in Indonesia and a resettlement agreement with other major resettlement countries (which is basically the US and Canada), because as Fraser admits, the numbers of asylum seekers are greater than Australia can manage.

As a former conservative prime minister who has been through a refugee “crisis” and handled it with aplomb, both at the time and for the long-term benefit of Australia through a successful Australian-Vietnamese community, Fraser brings far more to this debate than most progressives, particularly given his international experience and credibility as a Cold War warrior who was and is also respected for his role in African issues.

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Whether he meant it to be or not, his observation that Australia needs the assistance of the other big resettlement countries to deal with its current influx is an implicit rebuke to those who advocate “let them all come”, a slogan repeatedly invoked by asylum seeker advocates in response to PM Kevin Rudd’s PNG agreement.

“Let them all come” is a progressive version of “stop the boats”, a slogan that substitutes emotion for thinking and personal morality for good policy, a phrase that elevates intentions above outcomes. To “let them all come” would be to encourage more asylum seekers to undertake boat trips to reach Australia, knowing they will be resettled here if their request for asylum is granted. The good intention of “let them all come” will lead to the outcome of more drownings.

For policymakers, more than for most of us, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

The progressive response to this criticism is two-fold: either they accuse those claiming concern for drownings of feigning compassion and using it as a figleaf for racism, or they suggest we fly or sail asylum seekers from Indonesia to avoid drownings.

Most assuredly, many bigots prefer to express concern about drowning rather than openly express their dislike of asylum seekers. But that doesn’t render the argument about trying to stop drownings automatically invalid, even if articulated by someone in bad faith. And assuming voters would accept a taxpayer-funded transit service from Indonesia to prevent asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat, what would be the numerical limit given all of them would need to be resettled? About 17,000 asylum seekers reached Australia by boat in 2012, more than Australia’s humanitarian visa resettlement program until then-immigration minister Chris Bowen — in an action for which he was given zero credit by asylum seeker advocates and which the Coalition still proposes to reverse — increased it to 20,000.

“Ignoring this ongoing failure will condemn refugee advocates and progressives to a continuation of the status quo …”

There’s also the problem of cost. Resettlement, done properly with the goal of ensuring refugees can have decent and productive lives in their new home, costs a lot of money. Significantly increasing resettlement numbers will cost billions. What taxes will have to be raised, or other spending cut, to fund this? And do we set up upper limit at all? 25,000? 30,000? 35,000?

Then there’s an equity problem: assuming no significant fall in the push factors driving refugees to seek sanctuary elsewhere, “let them all come” advocates must either accept that most or all of our humanitarian intake would be made up of asylum seekers who can reach Indonesia or need to address the implicit unfairness of such a system: what happens to asylum seekers who lack the resources to reach Indonesia? “Let them all come” is an implicit statement to the latter that they will never be resettled in Australia, because we have prioritised those who can get to Indonesia.

It’s not as clear and stark a statement as Kevin Rudd declaring no one arriving by boat will be resettled here, but the policy outcome will be the same: no one who can’t reach Australia by boat will ever be resettled here.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with such an approach: Australia, as Fraser notes, can only do so much by itself; if every asylum seeker we resettle is a bona fide refugee, and nearly every maritime arrival certainly is, then privileging one group of asylum seekers — those who reach Indonesia — over others doesn’t undermine the fact that Australia is generously welcoming a large number of refugees for permanent resettlement. And it is simply human nature, even among policymakers, to prioritise people closer to us than those further away: asylum seekers trapped in refugee camps in Africa or the Middle East or Pakistan are for most of us an abstract with no great immediacy as a humanitarian issue, whereas most of us get very worked up, one way or the other, if the same people try to reach Australia.

But those who say “let them all come” should be open about their assumptions and that their approach would have the outcome of ending the resettlement hopes of those who can’t reach Indonesia.

But those who say “let them all come”, and many refugee advocates (Julian Burnside very much excepted), do not seem interested in policy outcomes, preferring instead a display of conspicuous compassion. Indeed, this is the story of the broader Left on asylum seekers over the last decade-plus: a comprehensive failure to address policy outcomes, in preference for public displays of compassion and an alternative narrative in which most Australians are fundamentally racist (Richard Cooke expertly addresses the “Australians are racist” line) or that former PM John Howard invented the threat of asylum seekers (which fails to explain why it was the Keating government, in 1992, that established mandatory detention).

Ignoring this ongoing failure will condemn refugee advocates and progressives to a continuation of the status quo, in which policymakers get on with trying to find ways to stop people coming in boats, while refugee advocates futilely jeer from the sidelines.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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