The announcement by Kevin Rudd and PNG PM O’Neill that asylum seekers arriving by boat would, from now on, be settled in PNG came as a shock to most of us. I’ve waited a while to respond, because I’m neither happy with the policy nor satisfied with the critical responses from the Left. It also remains unclear whether the policy will actually work as planned, but that will take some time to determine.
The benefit of waiting is that I’ve had time to see this piece by Tad Tietze, who I think sums up the issues pretty well, making the point that, while Rudd has outflanked Abbott regarding a hard line on boat arrivals, he has also outflanked critics on the left by increasing the total refugee intake, which is already claimed by the government to be the highest in the developed world on a per capita basis. 
Tietze’s proposed solution, an open border policy is appealing in principle, and potentially as a basis for a radical left campaign. Obviously, however, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, and particularly not on the basis of unilateral action by Australia.
Is there any solution that is both politically feasible and humane? The various iterations of Pacific Solution, Malaysian Solution, PNG Solution and so on, based on Australia solving our own problems through our position as regional hegemon, don’t give a lot of hope.
But what about a global solution? According to the UNHCR, there are around 10 million refugees “of concern” at present – this figure doesn’t seem to vary much over time. Suppose there is a net inflow of one million people a year. Then if the world could resettle 2 million people a year, it ought to be possible to substantially reduce the number of people in refugee camps and similar conditions, and the length of time (currently many years) it takes to be resettled. That’s about 0.1 per cent of the population of the OECD, and comparable to the increased Australian intake.
Of course, things aren’t so simple. The decision on whether to flee a dangerous situation, or to stay and hope for the best depends in part on the destination. Only the truly desperate would willingly choose years in a refugee camp, even as an alternative to war and persecution. If the outside option improved, more people would flee such situations. But even this would be an improvement.
The treatment of asylum seekers has shown Australia at our worst, driven by fear and bigotry. But with a serious effort to drive a global response to the problems of refugees, we could go a long way to redeem ourselves.
fn1. The claim is phrased in terms of resettlement, so it presumably excludes countries of first refuge like Pakistan. But, as far as I can tell, it appears to be correct with respect to developed countries. This has been a big change in a relatively short time – older data shows us a long way down the list.