asylum seekers

The Greens asylum seeker policy, most of which was released this morning, adopts much of the logic of last year’s Houston Panel report — but, crucially, not all of it.

That report, by Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle, argued for a significant rebalancing of incentives for asylum seekers, away from “irregular” pathways and toward “regular” pathways — the incentive of more opportunities to reach Australia via our humanitarian resettlement program, and the disincentive of no advantage in reaching Australia by boat, courtesy of a re-established Pacific Solution.

At the core of the Greens policy is the belief that disincentives will never work (and what evidence, so far, is there to contradict them?), and we need to massively increase the incentives to use regular pathways, via a dramatic expansion in our humanitarian intake and more Indonesian processing centres. More of the latter in a moment.

The increase in Australia’s humanitarian intake from 20,000 to 30,000 (though 4000 of the additional 10,000 places would be reserved for family reunion) would represent a more-than-doubling in just under two years. The Houston Panel recommended eventually lifting our intake to 27,000 over an extended period, rather than 30,000. But the goal would be the same: to dramatically decrease the supply pressure, particularly by immediately taking 10,000 asylum seekers from the region, 3800 of them from Indonesia. The incentive to get into a boat would be reduced — additionally, because asylum seekers from refugee-producing countries would be allowed to travel to Australia by air as well.

And as the Greens point out, the cost of resettling such a significantly greater number of refugees — costed at an additional $2.5 billion — is far less than the cost of running offshore detention centres.

However, the policy raises a number of questions. It proposes a number of UNHCR-run “safe” asylum seeker processing centres in Indonesia, further increasing the attractiveness of Indonesia for asylum seekers who can reach it (whether the Greens have consulted with the Indonesian government about this isn’t clear).

However, there is no guarantee that reaching such a centre would guarantee you would reach Australia: the humanitarian program is capped at 30,000, including another 4000 for family reunion. What happens if the numbers of asylum seekers exceeds 30,000? If they reach Australia by boat, they won’t be detained beyond an initial period for screening — and they are guaranteed resettlement here.

In short, the Greens are relying on being able to permanently cut the supply of asylum seekers to below 30,000. But there may be those who are not content to wait in an Indonesian processing centre, and who want to get to Australia with their families to get on with their lives and end the uncertainty, or who have the money to fly to Australia. And more asylum seekers will be in Indonesia, and resettlement in Australia will be guaranteed if you can reach here by boat, even if Australia has already taken 30,000 people under its humanitarian program.

So the Greens policy will work well up until the 30,001st asylum seeker and at that point becomes unclear: what will happen to asylum seekers arriving after we’ve taken 30,000? Are they detained? Sent back to an Indonesian processing centre? It’s implicit, but the 30,000, in the absence of any offshore processing or PNG plan, isn’t a hard cap.

Still, it may be enough: in the absence of a major humanitarian crisis, the Greens’ policy may be sufficient. It would be cheaper, too, than running offshore detention centres and bribing less developed countries in our region to take our problem off our hands.

But the complete removal of disincentives — the Greens even propose presumably permanent “community detention” for those found to be a security risk — leaves the effectiveness of the policy in the hands of people smugglers and asylum seekers. Australia would be a more attractive destination than it is currently under the Greens’ policy, and the Greens have no answers for what happens if that drives asylum seeker numbers beyond their 30,000 cap.