Why stop the boats?

I don't want to spend this whole election campaign writing angry posts about refugee policy. There are so many more interesting, and less repetitively awful, things to think about. But... you've gotta have at least one. So here we go.

There is no border protection rationale for the Pacific Solution, or Operation Sovereign Borders, or whatever we're now calling it. At the absolute peak of boat arrivals, the numbers were around 30 000 a year. (In no year did that many actually arrive, but nearly 15 000 people arrived on boats in the first six months of 2013.) In that year, net migration to Australia was 235 000. It's declined since, but is still comfortably clear of 150 000. And those are the net numbers, so the number of new immigrants arriving is higher than that. So the number of asylum seekers is much too small to have any real impact on unemployment, or welfare budgets, or culture, or really anything. You might want to have some short detention period for security reasons. But on the whole, stopping boat arrivals does not deliver any sort of economic or other benefit to Australia.

There are two possible justifications for policy designed to stop boat arrivals. One is that it avoids deaths at sea by discouraging refugees from making a dangerous journey in unseaworthy boats. I think this contains an important core of truth, but that it's often used disingenuously and, more importantly, does nothing to justify many of the blatantly cruel elements of current policy. You can think what you like about it.

The other is xenophobia. There's no two ways about this. Even if you think there are legitimate concerns about the economic impacts of immigration in general, there's no way they could make sense when applied to refugees. When Malcolm Turnbull says things like this, he's not doing anything other than running a Howard-era campaign, appealing to racist anti-refugee sentiment to bolster his political fortunes. And he knows it.

This is why my general attitude is that we should be very sceptical of politicians (especially, it has to be said, in the Liberal Party) citing the saving-lives justification for anti-boat deterrence - even if we think that justification is true. These days, in Australian politics, cruelty to asylum seekers has two principal rationales - avoiding the deaths of refugees, and cynical, racist politicking. When push comes to shove and Malcolm Turnbull talks about his refugee policy, it's the racist politicking that he falls back on. Even if, in his heart of hearts, he feels bad about that and only supports the policy for humanitarian reasons, it's a pretty despicable way to campaign.


  1. There are very coherent policy solutions to the "deaths at sea" problem which do not require punishing the people in the world most desperate to come to Australia so it's not worth it for them. For what it's worth I think some of the thinking behind the Malaysia Solution had this thought process in mind.

    Also in what world do communications teams think it's a good idea to call everything either Operation X or the X Solution? There are some very easy Nazi comparisons to avoid...


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