Generosity flounders in the depths of the refugee pool

The refugee issue, it seems to me, illustrates well to students of political science the classic left and right mindsets.

The progressive, left mindset: “for” refugees, idealistic, aspiring to a world where there are no refugees, emotional.

The conservative, right mindset: “against” refugees, unsentimental, seeing the world as it is rather than as they want it to be, coolly rational.

The refugee debate in Australia has largely bifurcated, along political lines, into being “for” or “against” refugees.

With the return to a hardline policy on unauthorised arrivals by sea, the Coalition government does indeed appear to have “stopped the boats”, as promised.

But this success has come at a cost: while a large part of the community was exasperated with Labor’s flip-flopping on the boats, and is happy to see an effective policy reinstated, the outrage of those who see only cruelty in a Pacific solution mark II has roared back to life.


While there is a “send them back where they came from” undercurrent among those who support the new tough policy, I hope no Australian is genuinely “against” refugees.

The driving out of people who are “different” from their own homelands is all too often an instrument of national policy, and the world needs to act more decisively to confront nations that do this. Refugees are the innocent by-product of these despicable policies.

But being “for” refugees should not mean being against policies that inhibit their unregulated travel to Australia.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently reported that the number of asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has exceeded 50 million for the first time since World War II.

The bulk of the refugees are in countries bordering their original homelands (Afghans in Pakistan, Sudanese in Chad, etc).

Most of these people live in abject poverty, crowded into makeshift camps with only the most basic of their needs met. Many are dependent on their host countries or aid agencies to survive.

But a significant proportion of these 50 million souls do have some access to money, commonly through relatives living in developed countries who are anxious for their welfare. 

This gives them the capacity to travel – and to pay those who might offer them a way out of their misery: people smugglers.  

The refugee pool is like a stagnant lake; new water pours in but very little escapes. When there is a breach in the lake, water pours towards it until the breach is stopped.

It cannot be said for certain how many of the world’s refugees could access the money needed to travel through such a breach in the walls holding them, but it could conservatively be estimated to number above 1 million, perhaps several-million.

Many thousands cross every year from developing countries to developed countries with porous borders, particularly in the European Union and the US, though many of these are likely to be seeking an escape from poverty and are not strictly refugees. 

Australia offered a breach in the walls of that refugee lake between 2008 and 2013, when onshore processing of asylum seekers was restored. The result was a surge of boat arrivals, despite the high prices charged by the people smugglers ($US10,000 per passenger was typical) and the risk of death at sea.

So here is Australia’s dilemma. With a growing pool of international refugees, if we were again to relax our border policies and effectively reopen the people smuggling pipeline, the number of refugees who would choose to use that pipeline would likely number in the tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands.

Those who self-select to access that pipeline will not necessarily be the most desperate or deserving – though all refugees are desperate and deserving to some degree – but will be those most able to pay.

The signs that such numbers would eventuate were evident under Labor’s stewardship of this problem. Of the almost 45,000 who arrived on its watch, more than half came in the last year alone.

Australia opening its borders to these yearning masses would be a major humanitarian breakthrough, and could make a significant dent in the worldwide refugee problem. But how would, say, 50,000 or 100,000 annual refugee arrivals tax the generosity and the tolerance of Australians?

Nor is this a step that can be taken in controlled stages. Former ombudsman Allan Asher suggested recently that Australia could take just those refugees in Indonesia and Malaysia (presently about 90,000 people). The problem with this is that it would take mere weeks for those numbers to backfill if it seemed a breach in the wall had appeared in this corner of the world.

Sadly, speaking coolly and rationally, until the world addresses the source of the problem and not its symptoms, Australia is only ever going to be able to scoop relatively small bucketfuls out of the refugee lake.

Gary Humphries, a former ACT Liberal chief minister and senator, is now a lobbyist.