Asylum: first ask the right questions

19 October 2011

Labor and the Opposition have made a right political meal of the appropriate response to ''irregular maritime arrivals'' and the offshore processing of asylum-seekers. Their one point of agreement is their stated conviction that government policy in some form can and will ''stop the boats''. Indeed, the idea that policies determine asylum flows has become political orthodoxy within Australian political circles and in the media. In our view it is an assumption that needs to be challenged.

The phenomenon of asylum-seekers engaging people smugglers and taking boats in search of protection is one that is hardly unique to Australia. The only extraordinary feature of the Australian experience is the prevalence of the belief that perfect control of Australia's borders is a rational and achievable policy objective.

The simple truth is that irregular migration is hugely complex. It is relative easy to identify ''push'' factors in asylum flows: these are the disasters that drive people to take huge risks in the hope of finding safe haven in another country.

The assertion that the combination of the Pacific Solution and temporary protection visas was responsible for reducing asylum flows under the Howard Government is catchy but simplistic. Dig a little deeper and you will find that the asylum-seekers did not stop coming into our region in 2002-04.

By 2007 and the change of government, there was a substantial number of asylum-seekers and refugees ''warehoused'' in Indonesia, people who had been prevented from getting on to boats to come to Australia by Australian and Indonesian authorities operating under a bi-lateral agreement.

The increase in boat arrivals under the Rudd-Gillard governments may reflect influxes of these warehoused refugees, changing policy towards offshore processing or the removal of the temporary protection scheme. It could be related equally to factors beyond the Australian Government's control, such as changes in people smuggling routes, and increased conflict in the region - most notably in Sri Lanka. As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd discovered in the stand-off with the Oceanic Viking, the assumption that Indonesia would extend and continue its interdiction efforts was ultimately misplaced.

Balancing the complex and dizzying array of possible cause-and-effect scenarios in irregular migration is difficult. In our view it takes two things to do it properly. First, we need more than one case study to draw any kind of conclusions about the effect of government policy upon asylum flows. In essence, the Government (and the Opposition) has been relying upon one data point - Australia - to draw conclusions about what does and does not stop irregular boat arrivals.

To analyse the relationship between policy and boats, we need to compare and contrast different possible causes - including different types of policies - and different outcomes. Second, we need to think about changes over time. If we can analyse policies across time, we might find that policies that were successful in one period, were not successful in another.

Good evidence-based research is needed to make policies on these hard public policy issues. We should be comparing the Cuban flotillas to the United States and the migration of sub-Saharan Africans to southern Europe with our current situation in Australia. We need to consider countries with lower asylum numbers and think about whether this reflects deterrence policies, geographical distance from conflict, the absence of family or cultural ties in that country, access to regular migration schemes, people smuggling networks or something else altogether.

Rather than relying on conjecture and single data points, we should look at as many cases as possible, with as many different outcomes as possible. Only when we have this information can we then answer the question of what policies work best to control Australia's borders and to stop irregular maritime arrivals (and the human tragedies that this can engender).

Dr Anna Boucher is a lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney.

Professor Mary Crock is professor of public law in the Faculty of Law at the University of Sydney.

Contact: Kate Mayor

Phone: 02 9351 2208

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