Asylum seekers: a considered proposal


If I were a refugee from a war-torn nation,
I should want nothing more than to find safety, and happiness for myself and my
loved ones. If the turmoil or persecution in my home country seemed likely to
endure, I would seek a new life in a different country. If I could somehow
expedite this process of resettlement, albeit by unofficial means, I would give
it serious thought.

This logic leads genuine refugees to pay
Indonesian people-smugglers to take them on a dangerous voyage to Australia. It
is a logic we can all sympathise with, even though it has been the cause of
great debate and conflict in Australia.
So far, neither side in this debate has managed to enunciate the real problem –
the reason why Australians want the boats to stop.

Most Australians have no problem with
tourism, legal migration, or the resettlement of refugees from foreign refugee
camps. Australians in general do not appear to have a problem with race, nor
with refugees per se. Our annual intake of refugees from United Nations’ camps
is uncontroversial; Australia
is a compassionate country. What riles the Australian public is, I suspect, the
sense that our generosity is being taken for granted. The refugees arriving by
boat are uninvited guests. Hence the resonance of former Prime Minister
Howard’s refrain, “We will decide who comes to this country and the
circumstances in which they come.”

It may sound petty, but acts of kindness
and compassion are predicated on a sense of genuine need and ensuing gratitude.
When charity or generosity are met with a sense of entitlement or taken for
granted, doubts will invariably arise.

We are told that these people are genuine
refugees, that they are escaping persecution, and that the risks they take to
get to Australia testify to the desperation they feel.

Yet desperation cannot be the determining
factor. Surely there are thousands of refugees in equal desperation but without
the financial power to make the journey to Australia? We cannot blame people
for wanting to seek a better life, but their doing so does not automatically indicate
their greater need. What about the many refugees selected from foreign camps
for humanitarian resettlement? Are they less desperate, or is their need less
great? Have we been selecting the wrong refugees all this time?

Another point of confusion is the
conflation of asylum and resettlement. Australia’s contribution to the
global refugee problem has been to offer resettlement to refugees already
enjoying some form of temporary protection in other countries, such as Pakistan and Thailand. We
have approached the problem of asylum seekers with the same framework, thereby
guaranteeing that any genuine refugee arriving on Australian territory will be
granted permanent residency.

Yet are these refugees seeking asylum or
resettlement? There is a significant difference in principle. Asylum denotes immediate and pressing protection from
persecution and violence, while resettlement is a solution to the problem of
refugees with no long-term prospect of repatriation. It only confuses the issue
to imply that refugees arriving in Australia via Indonesia are
seeking immediate protection from violence and persecution. In fact they are
seeking to expedite their chances of resettlement in this country. To put it
simply, an Afghan refugee living in Indonesia cannot meaningfully seek
asylum in Australia,
because he is already safe – from persecution in Afghanistan.

Presuming they are genuine refugees, we
cannot send them back to their home countries, nor are other countries likely
to accept them from us without some significant inducement. The Howard
government attempted to remove any incentive for refugees to undertake the
voyage to Australia,
and though Howard’s methods appeared to succeed, many Australians were
uncomfortable with the idea of punishing one group of people as a means of
dissuading other, future arrivals. It is, after all, compassion toward refugees
that laid the foundation for this problem in the first place. It would seem
incongruous to welcome one set of refugees with generosity and kindness, while
submitting another set of refugees to a variety of carefully crafted

As if the problem were not complicated
enough, we must also bear in mind the terrible risk of death inherent in the
voyage to Australia, as became apparent with the Christmas Island shipwreck of
December 2010. If we are providing an incentive for refugees to risk their
lives, do we not bear some moral responsibility for such terrible disasters? This
question has not received much serious attention. Most in favour of a
compassionate response to refugees appear more concerned with their treatment
on-shore than the risks entailed by their voyage.

An ideal response to the arrival of
refugees would take into account these important factors: Australians are
compassionate and wish to show compassion to refugees; Australians are angered
by the impression that their compassion is being taken for granted or
exploited; and we bear a moral responsibility to dissuade people from risking
their lives on the voyage to Australia.
In other words, we need to ‘stop the boats’ without losing our compassion for
refugees, or feeling that our compassion is being abused.

Easy, right?

While in an ideal world we would be able to
end the persecution and violence that creates refugees, we must content
ourselves with more modest responses. Here is my considered response: the
Australian government could charge refugees in Indonesia a significant fee to
travel safely to Australia and enter our existing refugee processing centres,
thus creating a ‘contributory
refugee processing scheme.

According to the Department of Immigration,
of the 5209 ‘Irregular Maritime Arrivals’ in 2009-2010:

21% paid between
$0 and $5000

30% paid between
$5001 and $10,000

37% paid between
$10,001 and $15,000

12% paid $15001
or more.

These figures are skewed because some refugees rely on contributions from family
and do not know the actual figure, while others pay with jewellery
rather than cash, and some deny having made any payment at all. But clearly
there are significant
amounts of money
changing hands. Australia could set a reasonable
fee that competes with the people-smuggling operations and guarantees safe
arrival at an Australian refugee processing facility. This service could even
be run from countries such as Pakistan
and Thailand,
ensuring that the people-smugglers are cut out altogether.

Such a strategy would meet the requirements
established: it would allow us to continue treating refugees with compassion,
yet would also moderate the impression that Australian compassion is being
exploited. Refugees arriving by boat would be seen to be contributing to their
resettlement, to the degree that they are able, and we could accordingly
abandon any punitive measures still lingering in the refugee processing system.
At the same time, the dangerous voyages on leaky boats would be entirely
superseded, and the people-smuggling operations would be driven out of

I must admit that this proposal is
disturbing, even to me. But why should it be? The best way to cure resentment
toward an unwelcome guest is to have him bring something to the table. Why not
apply the same principle to refugees? Likewise, when it comes to non-emergency
medicine we are happy to let people pay more for preferential treatment, so
long as no one is put at risk. Could the same approach work for refugee
resettlement? Indeed, we already allow other categories of
visa applicant to contribute money – as much as $42,000 – in exchange for a
shorter wait and priority treatment.

This is not an elegant, principled solution,
but a messy compromise. In theory, the only losers will be the people-smugglers.
In practice, we may find ourselves overwhelmed by excessive demand for the
paid-refugee option, or embroiled in a competitive price war with the
people-smuggling business. But it is not yet clear how many refugees really do
have the necessary funds, nor do we know at what point the people-smugglers
would be priced out of the business.

It might just be crazy enough to work!


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