Asylum seekers bound for Australia are detained off the coast of Indonesia

When Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the UN last week that he would lift Australia’s refugee intake to 18,750, he no doubt thought he was making a generous gesture, or at least one that would be seen as such by his noisy Australian critics.

What he did, however, was spark a continued debate about how this new figure only returned the refugee intake to an earlier level and, again, what Australia’s intake should actually be. Not least, Turnbull’s claim that the new figure places Australia third among OECD countries has come under critical scrutiny.

After the depths of the Tony Abbott-led 13,000 refugee intake, a near-50% hike does look positive. But relativising refugee intake numbers was never going to wash with the many who believe Australia’s refugee policy remains profoundly off the rails.

[Turnbull is not your refugee hero — he’s making Abbott’s cuts permanent]

Both Labor and the Greens scoffed at Turnbull’s announcement. Oxfam Australia said by its own estimate, Australia should be taking 42,000 refugees a year, based on the intake during the Indochinese refugee influx of the late 1970s and early ’80s.

The government’s new figure of under 19,000 remains well below Labor’s proposed 27,000 and a shadow of the Greens’ 50,000, announced just before the last federal elections.

The government’s figure is derived from a previous refugee intake level, while Labor simply — and relatively arbitrarily — in 2015 doubled the existing refugee intake quota. The Greens’ round figure of 50,000 echoed a later Labor discussion paper, which proposed the same number.

[‘Stop the boats’ and ‘let them come’ are both pointless protests]

Having been leaked by Labor’s disaffected pro-asylum seeker lobby, the Greens appeared to head off a possible pre-election move by Labor to secure what the Greens regard as fertile electoral ground.

The Greens have not made public how they arrived at the figure of 50,000, but the Labor discussion paper was more clear. In short, the paper divided the refugee intake of all OECD countries, and factored in relative population size and per capita GDP and the growth of the global refugee numbers since 2014. The figure came out at a refugee intake of about 50,000 a year, give or take a thousand or so.

The paper was intended to demonstrate that, taking the politics out of Australia’s refugee intake, to meet the OECD average refugee intake, Australia’s refugee intake is woefully inadequate.

But Australia’s refugee policy is, if nothing else, deeply political. Basing refugee intake on precedent, arbitrarily doubling an existing number, extrapolating from an earlier intake, or borrowing from another party’s discussion paper all involve political judgment. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is that lifting refugee intake to 18,750 in two years’ time will still leave Australia a very long way short of the OECD’s third-highest refugee intake.

* Damien Kingsbury is a professor of international politics at Deakin University

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey