Frequently Quoted Inaccuracy #7: To stop the boats, we need to make sure people smugglers have no product to sell

In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing of the irregular entrants to the region. The purpose would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell. Arriving by boat would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre.[1]

Prime Minister Julia Gillard, 6 July 2010

Labor’s policies are giving people smugglers a product to sell. One hundred and forty three illegal boat arrivals do not lie. Labor cannot be trusted to implement policies that secure Australia’s borders and protect the integrity of [the] immigration programme.[2]

Coalition Action Plan on refugees, 6 July 2010

Reality:
The major parties may disagree (somewhat) about how to “stop the boats”, but there is bipartisan support for the view that this boat people issue is really all about branding. Australia is a product, and boat people are just everyday consumers shopping around for the best deal.

But is it that simple?

To answer this, it is necessary to consider what factors are relevant when asylum seekers chose product Australia. There is a large body of (market) research that has been conducted in the past decade by migration experts, demographers and economists into the reasons for boat arrivals. One such report conducted by ANU notes that while tougher policies do have a deterrent effect, they account for only one third of the decline in applications since 2001.[3] Instead, violence and terror in host countries was cited as a significant “push” factor.[4]

Let’s take Afghanistan and Sri Lanka; two of the key source countries for the most recent wave of boat arrivals.[5] The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on their website note the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (Tamil Tigers) by government forces in May 2009 and the occurrence of particularly politically charged presidential and parliamentary elections on 26 January 2010 and 8 April 2010 respectively.[6] According to the UNHCR, the military operations in the lead up to May 2009 alone displaced some 280,000 people, this figure added to an already sizable number of internally displaced persons.[7] The DFAT website also cites the recent elections as “catalysts for violence and civil unrest”.[8] This fresh wave of internal unrest and military violence is clearly at least one significant factor in the increase in Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

Turning now to Afghanistan, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade itself, issues the highest level of security warning in respect of Afghanistan.[9] AusAID note that “almost three decades of conflict have devastated much of Afghanistan’s human, physical and institutional infrastructure, and insecurity remains a critical challenge to development efforts.”[10] The UNHCR estimate that there are 2,887,123 refugees originating from Afghanistan[11] who have fled their country in recent years due to violence, persecution and internal unrest. And with ethnic conflict still rife, it is simply not a safe place for many to live. In fact, DFAT issue some rather prudent advice on their website; “if you are in Afghanistan, you should consider leaving.”[12] So clearly what is happening in Afghanistan is just as important as what is happening in Australia in identifying reasons why boats arrive on our shores.

Based on a little market research, we can see that boat arrivals are caused by a number of factors.[13] It seems like a bit of an over simplification to put this all down to PR. But even if we do, let’s think about the Australian product. Lets call it a Grill’d burger.[14] Everyone loves Grill’d burgers. They are delicious and nutritious and overflowing with fillings of the highest possible quality. They are everything anyone could want in a sandwich. The idea behind offshore processing is that instead of a Grill’d burger, you get some sort of pathetic slap-dash home-made concoction; made with that decaying plant matter that collects at the bottom of crispers wedged between a couple of stale bits of bread. No one wants that product right? Well, not unless you were dying of starvation.

Perhaps in some cases, it’s not so much about the product on offer, but more about how much it’s needed.


[1] Julia Gillard, ‘Moving Australia Forward’ (Speech delivered at the Lowy Institute, Sydney, 6 July 2010), p. 7.

[2] The Coalition’s real action plan for restoring integrity and fairness to refugee decision making, 6 July 2010 at http://www.liberal.org.au/Latest-News/2010/07/06/The-Coalitions-real-action-plan-for-restoring-integrity-and-fairness-to-refugee-decision-making.aspx at 19 August 2010

[3] Hatton, T. J. (2009), The Rise and Fall of Asylum: What Happened and Why?. The Economic Journal, 119: F183–F213. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0297.2008.02228.x

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Guardian, Australia stops accepting refugee claims from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, 9 April 2010 at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/apr/09/australia-refugees-afghanistan-sri-lanka at 19 August 2010

[6] DFAT, Travel Advice – Sri Lanka at http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Sri_Lanka

[7] UNHCR, 2010 UNHCR country operations profile – Sri Lanka at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e4878e6 at 19 August 2010

[8] DFAT, Travel Advice – Sri Lanka at http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Sri_Lanka

[9] DFAT, Travel Advice – Afghanistan at http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Afghanistan at 19 August 2010

[10] AusAID, Afghanistan at http://www.ausaid.gov.au/country/country.cfm?CountryID=27886219&Region=AfricaMiddleEast

[11] UNHCR, 2010 UNHCR country operations profile – Afghanistan at http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e486eb6 at 19 August 2010

[12] DFAT, Travel Advice – Afghanistan at http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Afghanistan at 19 August 2010

[13] Hatton, T. J. (2009), The Rise and Fall of Asylum: What Happened and Why?. The Economic Journal, 119: F183–F213. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0297.2008.02228.x

[14] Partly because I like analogies, mostly because I’m a smidge peckish.

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4 Comments

Filed under Frequently Quoted Inaccuracies (FQIs)

4 responses to “Frequently Quoted Inaccuracy #7: To stop the boats, we need to make sure people smugglers have no product to sell

  1. Ben

    Excellent point about the DFAT travel advice – same goes for Iraq and Somalia (the Sri Lankan alert also refers specifically to “the high risk of politically motivated violence” and current State of Emergency in that country) – maybe DFAT should talk to DIAC more?

  2. Cat

    Your analogy of the Grill’d burger is perfect. It really drives home the issue in a way that the Australian public can understand.

  3. Sean from Townsville

    Australia takes 13,500 Asylum Seekers per year, a pre-set amount.

    Thats a fact.

    Now the only real difference of opinion between the left and the right on this subject is this.

    The left want people smugglers and criminal gangs to deciding who shall be the most deserving and send those people here on leaking boats after being paid tens of thousands of dollars and skipping through half a dozen safe havens, burning their ID papers just before they board the boat.

    The right wants Australia and the U.N to decide who shall be the most deserving and send those people here safely after doing extensive criminal, health and history checks by plane from U.N refugee camps.

    There is no argument about refugee intake here, simply an ideological disagreement. The left want to pretend they stand on the moral soapbox on this issue, but the reality is what they are standing on is a pile of something you’d find at the farm.

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