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Boat people merely pawns

Date

Australia can embrace a larger refugee intake, writes Kim Huynh

The Nauru detention centre.

The Nauru detention centre. Photo: Angela Wylie

Make no mistake, Tony Abbott does not want to stop the boats, at least not straight away. Moreover, he knows that the government cannot stop them today and that he will not be able to stop them next year if he wins the election.

Why then is he pushing to reintroduce temporary protection visas, promising to reduce the refugee and humanitarian intake to 13,750 and calling to push boat people back to where they came from?

The Opposition Leader wants to send a message to asylum seekers and people smugglers in Indonesia and Malaysia to make their journeys soon because - regardless of the horrific risks - it will only get riskier for them if he comes to power. It serves Abbott's political interests for as many boat people as possible to come to Australia now, as that makes the government look weak on border security. Then any reduction that follows a Coalition victory next year would allow him to present himself as a man of action who saved Australia from peaceful invasion (the noun surely negates the adjective).

For this reason it is impossible for the government to compromise with the opposition. When Julia Gillard revived the Pacific Solution, the opposition insisted that it was a feeble attempt to replicate Howard-era policy. The bridging visa that has been proposed by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, allowing asylum seekers to eke out a living onshore will, according to Abbott, promote welfare dependency among people who are already trying to get ''something for nothing''.

The government could adopt every Coalition measure and it would still not be hard-line enough. The opposition's spokesman on immigration, Scott Morrison, has made this clear, asserting that it is not the policy that is the problem, but the government.

In this vein, Morrison recently highlighted that more than 30,000 boat people have arrived since the election of the Gillard government. This is ''greater than the seating capacity of Simonds Stadium in Geelong, Skilled Park on the Gold Coast, the WACA [Ground] in Perth and Canberra Stadium'', which is to say they are encroaching upon sports-loving people across the nation.

However, there is a strong case for Australia accepting 30,000 refugees every year. On figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, adjusting for population size, Australia is 71st in the world in terms of how many refugees it accommodates and 21st among the 44 most indust-rialised countries. Importantly, the global refugee problem is overwhelmingly shouldered by the developing world, where more than 80 per cent of refugees reside.

As for asylum claims, and again taking into account population size, Australia is 32nd in the world and 15th among the 44 most industrialised countries. We fall significantly lower in these rankings when GDP is taken into account, not to mention the fact that Australia's economy is travelling much better than others.

Australia is thus not punching above its weight in terms of its refugee and humanitarian intake and, as vexed and difficult as this issue is, we do not have a crisis or invasion when compared to other countries. This hard fact is in stark contrast to the hype over boat people which makes out Australians are hapless victims vis a vis the forced migrants who are seeking protection here.

So here are some more hard facts about asylum seekers and refugees that politicians rarely acknowledge:

■ The world has shrunk to the extent that Australia is no longer geographically isolated and therefore cannot exert total control over its borders.

■ In this context, deterrence is largely delusional. For deterrence to work, it requires Australia to inflict a degree of harm upon asylum seekers that is greater than the harm from which they are escaping. Even with the best co-operation and increased capacity building, conditions for asylum seekers in south-east Asia are not going to improve in the near or intermediate future to the extent that people will no longer feel compelled to make the journey to Australia by boat.

■ The surge in boat arrivals is a consequence of the defeat of Tamil forces and subsequent political reconfiguration of Sri Lanka. This surge will peter out sooner or later, to be replaced by another mass displacement.

It follows that references to once-and-for-all solutions are at best naive and often misleading. Increasing the refugee and humanitarian intake to 30,000 a year is admittedly not a solution. However, it at least allows Australians to be a little more genuine with ourselves and others about our resilience, toughness and compassion.

Kim Huynh is a lecturer in the school of politics and international relations at the Australian National University.

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