Friday, 19 July 2013

Rudd Takes Wind Out Of Abbott's Sails, May Even Stop Boats

If posed as a logic puzzle, Kevin Rudd's solution to Australia's problem of boat people is brilliant. Under this scheme, no asylum seeker who comes to Australia by boat without a visa will ever be able to settle in Australia. They will instead be sent to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for processing, and resettled there. That's that.

Why is this solution at least theoretically brilliant?

There are two groups of people scrambling onto rickety boats to come to Australia, putting their own lives at risk and creating feelings of guilt among humanitarian Australians.

There are the people persecuted in their home countries and whose lives are in danger, who desperately need to flee their countries just to stay alive. They're generally acknowledged to be genuine refugees. There are international laws to safeguard their rights, and as a signatory to those international laws, Australia is duty-bound to accept a certain proportion of them. It would be unconscionable to turn them away.

Then there are the people who are in no danger of persecution or death in their home countries, but who perceive a chance of a better life abroad. These people are commonly called "economic migrants". There is no international law that recognises their aspirations as a fundamental human right, and no obligation on any country's part to indulge their dreams. Any migration arrangement has to be transactional and mutually beneficial, such as Australia's Skilled Migration program.

The whole problem is trying to weed out economic migrants from the hordes of people turning up in boats at Australian shores, so that genuine refugees may be considered. The problem is popularly termed "queue-jumping", but it's more basic than that. It's not that some deserving people are being served out of turn, ahead of other deserving people. It's that undeserving people are being served in the first place.

What Kevin Rudd's solution has done is change the rules of the game so genuine asylum seekers select themselves, and mere economic migrants select themselves out. As a shibboleth, it's brilliant.

What do refugees want? Safety, wherever they can find it.
What do economic migrants want? The opportunity to live in a developed country (not in a less developed one).

Let's face it, out of the world's 7 billion people, at least 6 billion would jump at the chance to live in Australia, including many from the so-called First World. Australia is far and away the best place in the world to live, bar none. And so Australia's international commitment to accept refugees has become "sugar on the table" that attracts hordes of others who face no danger or persecution in their home countries, but who simply think it would be a great idea to resettle in this paradise and don't mind the risks of a boat journey. The number of Sinhalese (not Tamil) asylum seekers is an example of this, because Sinhalese are the dominant group in Sri Lanka and face no persecution there.

As long as an Australian visa was seen as the only way to grant safety to refugees, there was no way to distinguish between the two groups of asylum seekers. But by offering safety in a third country and simultaneously ruling out the possibility of living in Australia, a wedge has been neatly driven between these two groups. The genuine refugees will still arrive, and will receive the safety from persecution that they crave and deserve. The economic migrants will have to turn away from the boats and explore other options, because their objectives will no longer be met.

While the scheme is brilliant as an abstract logical problem, I have some concerns about it in practice.

1. From Australia's point of view, the deal with PNG should have been locked in for at least 5 years. Making it renewable every year not only gives PNG too much negotiating advantage, the uncertainty it generates will keep the people-smugglers in business by letting them play on the hopes of economic migrants.

2. From PNG's point of view, this scheme sows the seeds of future ethnic strife. Australia is doing to PNG what the British did to Fiji by importing Indian labour into the island. The tensions between ethnic Fijians and Indians continues to this day, and it doesn't take too much imagination to see what would happen when PNG natives interact more frequently with, and compete with, people from Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere. I don't know if PNG has really thought this through.

3. Getting other countries in the region to "share Australia's burden" is a great idea, but while Indonesia is a good candidate as a destination country, New Zealand is not. NZ is like Australia in its attractiveness to economic migrants. Adding New Zealand to the list of countries that agree to resettle boat people "puts the sugar back on the table".

Whether Rudd's scheme will succeed in stopping the boats remains to be seen. But I'm fairly certain it has torpedoed Abbott's election campaign. And that is unbridled goodness.

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