Is there a solution to the refugee problem?

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. [1]

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.

161 thoughts on “Is there a solution to the refugee problem?

  1. FTR, I wasn’t about to take Mel’s bait on the ‘Marxist pyramid of skulls’. This is standard troll fare and I’ve addressed challenges of this kind in this place at length and more than once. It’s enough.

    Mel’s fatuous defence of colonialism was the real take away here. We see in the current FDP problem one of the more obvious legacies of it.

  2. @Jim Rose

    That misinterpretation of my comment is significant. It is clear that I meant physical and biological laws i.e. scientific laws not human laws.

    “The laws of science or scientific laws are statements that describe, predict, and perhaps explain why, a range of phenomena behave as they appear to in nature. The term “law” has diverse usage in many cases: approximate, accurate, broad or narrow theories, in all natural scientific disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy etc.).”- Wikpedia.

    It is these scientific laws that neoclassical economics ignores by assuming at the macro level infinite availability and total fungibility of physical resources (both as stocks and flows) and by ignoring the consumption of natural capital and the impact negative externalities.

  3. @wmmbb
    The visa you quote are for visits to Indonesia not Iran and are available to nationals from about 65 countries. Visas on arrival in Iran are 2weeks and 50-60 euros. Wikipedia gives this info.

  4. I think the govt’s handling of the SBS Dateline expose of the Manus Island abominations will make or break Rudd’s asylumseeker policy as credible.

    If Manus is seen as irreparably a “hellhole” and DIAC as a malign administration, he loses what grudging support he has from the Labor base who 1. accept that some policy accommodation is necessary to the backwardness of much of the electorate 2. accept its core objective as adequate: bluntly, that our obligation is to rescue people from persecution not to provide an Aust standard of living and 3. the political and departmental leadership is principled enough to aim for high outcomes and has the capacity to achieve them despite the inevitable potholes in the road. Obviously if Labor is shown to have been blindsided by departmental coverups and incompetence, Labor loses confidence and votes from both left and right voters.

    The whistleblower on Dateline was employed by G4S. This is the company roundly criticised in Antony Loewenstein’s new book Profits of Doom, which includes case reports on what he calls “vulture capitalism.” GSL (incorporated into G4S in 2008) was roundly criticised by the Aust National Audit Office in 2006 for its inferior services. A source quoted in the book say DIAC knew they were hopeless but kept them on, until they were dropped by the Howard govt in 2007 in favour of rival company Serco, partly as a result of the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Alvarez cases (remember them?) But as detainee numbers increased, DIAC and Serco brought ex-G4S people back into service and a tougher and less humane culture developed.

    And the competitive tendering prized in Canberra may have been the reason why (according to the book) Serco dropped its tender price to match G4S in 2009. This may explain their scrimping on numbers of staff, and breaches of their contract to provide education and activities for refugees. The contract is detailed in “Exclusive: Our Contract with Serco” in New Matilda 9 Nov 2011 by Loewenstein, Cordell, Farrell.

    Antony L’s conclusion is that the increased role of the private sector is the cancer causing this mess but I’m not so sure: the political/bureaucatic class is eager to contract out operational decisionmaking so they can blame others when there’s trouble. Here we have the consequences of the political risk-aversion so endemic in PS managerialism. Both sides of politics, including Tony Burke, are well aware of the troubled contracting failures and promised to improve them. If the govt can’t credibly respond after all the opportunities to learn from the past, it won’t convince anyone.

  5. Ikonoclast,

    It is these scientific laws that neoclassical economics ignores by assuming at the macro level infinite availability and total fungibility of physical resources (both as stocks and flows) and by ignoring the consumption of natural capital and the impact negative externalities.

    why invented the term externality?

    William Stanley Jevons’s The Coal Question (1865) founded the economics of natural resources, sustainability, the limts of growth and peak coal see

  6. That is correct Kevin 1. The figure I had for the price was from The SMH, and now I have lost the reference. Perhaps Iran was being used as a refugee gateway to Indonesia and also for drug smuggling, that might have originated in Afghanistan.

    I have been trying to come to terms with the problem as posed, as least in general terms. Contrary to Tony Abbott the refugee problem may start off as local but becomes an international problem, and it is not in every instance merely a local problem. Obviously, it needs to be understood in broad outline from the place of conflict, to displacement of people to refuge, often crossing borders and then to movement to final destinations.

    Mapping that out in a schematic way, it is reasonably straightforward to identify some general elements of the solution. Firstly, if possible, reversing the flow of people, if partially back to their homelands. That requires conflict resolution and sustainable peace, which in turn may require, if temporary, furnishing external resources. Equally, if now, in the immediate future mitigation of climate change is urgent to forestall conflict and population displacements. Secondly, refugees are place into a decision environment that is extreme it is important to facilitate processing of claims. Thirdly, political rhetoric that furnishes dehumanization presages, as we are witness to, violence. “Border control” is an example of coded language. Fourthly, given that the burden of settlement, should ideally be equitably shared, if possible, settlement within Australia is a crucial issue. I don’t know people from Western Sydney, so I don’t know what they are on about.

    I was interested by the comment (but others as well) in regard to empathy and social distance. So finally, now this is possible, we should allow refugees voice, and listen to their stories. Here, for example, is Santino.

  7. About this time last week, I posted some ideas about how Australia could play a part in dealing with the global challenge of resettling those 15 million or so regarded by the UNHCR as refugees, while making a start on some of the broader work on realising the Millennium Development Goals. It was intended seriously, but of course, in this country, the only thing that is serious about refugee policy at official level is a serious wish that those who can get to Australia and claim refugee status should FOAD. Talking with a normally slightly left-of-centre colleague recently, I was reminded how intellectually deforming tribalism can be as he conceded that everything I said on dealing with refugees was true and then went on to nevertheless defend FOAD policy.

    So we’re a very long way from getting an equitable and sustainable policy for responding to the challenge of doing right by those whose options for avoiding persecution approach are modest.

    With that in mind, I thought I’d focus on what, in the more immediate sense, could be done to amereliorate the current ostensible policy concern — “stopping drownings” — that doesn’t entail direct or implicit coercion or forcible acceptance of misery or radically diminished life chances.

    Firstly, and most obviously, one must look at that part of the causation over which Australian regimes can exercise some influence. IMO this is the ‘urgency’ question. Clearly, if people in camps in Indonesia or Malaysia feel as if their lives are not maintainable — they and their children have to live in squalor in a kind of interminable waiting room to begin the rest of their lives — then they are going to see a high risk-high return risk trade as more appealing. The low risk-low return gets them death in the end, and misery in the meantime. Going into debt to pay people for the right to ride on an unseaworthy vessel crewed by children so as to have a shot at a life with purpose and fulfilment seems rational. Almost anyone would do this.

    So the first thing we need to do is to create an actual queue. People should believe that if they present for protection in Indonesia or Malaysia or any other significant aggregation point then their applications will be considered in a timely way. Once determined to be a bona fide claimant, they will be settled within a reasonable time, if not in Australia, then, by negotiation, in a satisfactory place negotiated between them, Australia, the host country (if not Australia) and relevant NGOs.

    In the interim, Australia ensures that their ‘waiting room’ is not a squalid camp but something that resembles a well established settlement, with robust housing, paved streets, addresses at which they can receive physical mail, water and sewerage, garbage collection, power, data, health, education for children, adolescents and adults, television and recreation facilities and so forth. The government thus ensures that irrespective of the determination of their applications, that if they stay put, they can get the education and health and the dignity that their own states denied them, and help them qualify over time as skilled or business migrants in other countries if not Australia. Australia becomes their agent, assisting them to move on with their lives. An office is set up in the camp staffed during business hours. Indonesians and Malaysians get access to the health and education facilities. We pay for this under aid budgets.

    Now in the long run, people who have decided that there is nothing for them in their home country are not going to be deterred indefinitely, but in this approach, in the short to medium term, the urgency diminishes, and as time passes, they have a growing sunk cost asset to protect (their place in the actual queue). They also have an interest in staying put, since their life chances are improving and they can believe that the day when they can start a new and better life is approaching. Australia can present itself as a place honouring its obligations under the convention and would probably spend less per protected person under this plan than it is now.

  8. see David I Levine’s “The Economics of International Refugee Law,” with Ryan Bubb and Michael Kremer, forthcoming, Journal of Legal Studies.

    We model the current system of refugee protection as a contract that bound states to provide a more efficient level of the public good of refugee protection.

    We show how the screening problem caused by economic migration has strengthened states’ incentives to shade on their obligations under the 1951 Convention, resulting in more refoulement of refugees to their place of persecution.

    We also model reform schemes in which wealthy states pay poorer states to host refugees.

    A system that transfers refugee claimants from wealthy states to poorer states could ameliorate the screening problem by inducing self-selection among refugee claimants but would also create negative externalities for third countries.

    We argue that reforms in which wealthy states paid poorer states to resettle refugees from other poorer states would be more efficient than current refugee policies that focus on providing aid in refugee camps and resettling refugees from camps to wealthy states.

  9. Asylum seeker fraud exposed:

    A secret government survey reveals the majority of successful Tamil refugees travel back to Sri Lanka, raising questions about the legitimacy of their refugee status.

    To become a refugee, a claimant must prove they are in danger of torture, there is a risk to their life or meet other criteria showing they will face persecution in their home country. Yet this did not stop over 70% of successful Tamil refugee claimants surveyed from returning to Sri Lanka for vacations, business or to sponsor family members.

    No doubt the same thing is happening here but and lazy and incompetent Government isn’t monitoring the situation.

  10. @Fran Barlow

    Annually since 2010 the Scanlan Foundation Social Cohesion Research Program at Monash (Andrew Markus is the Director) has surveyed on the asylum seeker issue. It’s a one-page report and worth looking up. They ask 3 questions, 2 are worth spelling out. “‘Do you feel positive, negative or neutral about refugees who have been assessed overseas and found to be victims of persecution and in need of help coming to live in Australia as a permanent or long term resident?” There are 6 choices, and combined Very Positive and Somewhat Positive totalled 73% last year.

    Another question is “‘Which of the following four statements comes closest to your view about the best policy for dealing with asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat?” The 5 choices and results are perm residence 23%, temp residence only 38%, detained and sent back 9%, boats turned back 26%, other 5%.

    From this and the other results, I infer
    * a strong majority in favour of “orderly process”
    * only 23% in favour of perm residence
    * 46% believe those arriving by boat were coming for a better life
    * 66% rate the govt’s performance as poor or very poor on “how the govt is handling the asylum seeker issue”

    This is the difficult political terrain, and the authors say an educational campaign is unlikely to have much impact with the results of these surveys showing little variation over the 3 surveys. Is this just the White Australia policy in modern guise? Not if we can try to build something from the strong support for compassion. How to deal with the given of a conservative and fearful electorate in a principled way is not a faux concern.

    There is still some creative thinking going on by some immigration veterans. Both Andrew Jakubowicz at The Conversation this week (Asylum Solutions: Temporary Visas with a Difference), and John Menadue’s blog entry Iranians – refugees or migrants? at his “Pearls and Irritations” (great name – “the pearl is the irritation of the oyster”) explore new visa classes. And former Refugee Review Tribunal member Mirko Bagaric proposes leaving the Refugee Convention on humanitarian and equity grounds, and going straight to the existing camps to take up to 50,000 people. He’s interviewed on the ABC website, story is “Fmr Refugee Tribunal member says dump UN Treaty.” The extraordinary circumstances in some countries could be dealt with by govt to govt agreement to evacuate large numbers at source with a view to resettlement in Aust, Canada etc., and I think Malcolm Fraser might have suggested that too, instead of this country hopping which may cause greater discord all round.

    Expansion of offshore reception and assessment has attractions, but a friend told me the Indonesians and Malaysians are against it, because it will increase the pull effect. I haven’t read the Expert Panel report but I’m told they also commented on that.

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