Protection vs protectionism: debating Australia’s migration policies

In the past week, the Australian government has announced new plans to resume “offshore processing” of asylum-seekers who arrive by sea. This blog is a response to this article written by Amanda Vanstone, who was once Australian Minister for Immigration under the Howard Government.
Now for the disclaimer: I’m not Australian. I’m not even particularly knowledgable about Australian politics, so the details may well have escaped me. But, having been sent Vanstone’s piece by a friend, I’m disturbed enough to want to write something now.
This is because the arguments being made go well beyond Australia. It seems to me that the claims underpinning Vanstone’s writings reflect a broader truth about how many Western politicians – and a lot of the Western public – understand asylum. Here in Europe, Australia’s immigration policies are often viewed as a touchstone – or arguably an ominous foretelling – of what pragmatic refugee protection should look like in “over-burdened” Western democracies. Might look like soon. The arguments Vanstone makes are dangerous: their claims are found on fallacy not fact.  What follows may be ostensibly about the Australian debates now: but the arguments are really about global — or at least Western — attitudes to refugee protection.
Essentially, Vanstone makes three claims. First, that those that oppose the Houston Plan outright are crippled by a ‘ smug sense of sanctimony ’ that means they fail to recognise their must be some limit to the number of asylum seekers Australia can ‘afford’ to support. Second, that all refugees must be given a fair opportunity to reach Australia: the boat-people are queue jumpers, buying their way to freedom at the expense of those in camps. Third, that – because ‘hope is the last thing to die’– boat arrivals should also be denied any opportunity for permanent residency or family reunification. This formula would mean ‘the flood will become a trickle almost overnight’.
So then: limits. Is there a finite limit to the number of people any given place, any community, can support? Sure. Malthus worked that one out a while back. But Australia, I don’t think you’re there quite yet. So that ‘limit to what we can afford’ is a political one, another contrived migration figure (net UK migration down to tens of thousands anyone?) It’s fairly clear that Australia, in purely economic terms, could absolutely ‘afford’ to take in quite a few more refugees (presumably why the sugar coating to this policy was an announcement that Australia will increase its humanitarian intake to 20,000).
Add to this a language which assumes that all refugees bring are costs not benefits and buys into the lump-of-labour myth, and Vanstone’s insistence that a numerical limit somehow justifies offshore processing begins to look shaky. Yes, it would be disingenuous to claim that Australia could – or should – support all 26 million displaced people in the world today. But it is equally dishonest to suggest that – when no more than 8000 asylum seekers arrived by boat into acountry of 22 million last year – this the number game is dictated by anything other than politics. Australia is in this to burden-shift, not burden-share. All migration policies, after all, are ultimately a form of protectionism.
Vanstone then sets up a false choice: it’s either that free-spending, smuggler-befriending asylum-seeker on the High Seas or the poor, honest refugee waiting in the camps. Really? I’m not sure where to begin. Good refugee, bad refugee: this type of crude dichotomy says more about the paternalism of refugee protection and humanitarian “angels” than it bears any resemblance to the realities of refugee life. Treating refugees as passive objects, making vulnerability the key qualification for a resettlement place: it just makes vulnerability valuable. Last month I interviewed many refugees waiting for resettlement who insisted that their most valuable possession was their story of rape or torture, because that might be the ticket to leave to the West. Follow this logic, and the only “good” refugee is a dependent refugee.
But don’t fool yourself that refugee resettlement exists outside of the market economy. As long as it’s a rare commodity (and remember only 1 in 10 of every refugee who is identified as needing – that’s needing, not wanting – resettlement actually gets a place), it will be bought, and sold, and middlemen will make profits from queue-jumpers. Policy-makers (as well as many NGOs) need to acknowledge that – much like our own societies – there is often huge inequality within refugee communities. But to fix that, we would need to take a much closer look at capitalism than most Western governments would like to. In the meantime – as Vanstone herself comes close to admitting as she circles around her own argument – it’s wrong to pretend that that this latest policy intervention will do anything more than change market dynamics.
This is why she comes to the conclusion that the only way to really stop those capitalist boat-people is to deny them permanent residence and deny their families permission to join them. Which is basically an argument for second class refugee status, based on your mode of arrival. Because all asylum-seekers must prove their claim to be granted the right to remain. And after that – well, surely the focus should be on integration? On making Australian citizens from these refugees? Not only because it is both inhumane and in contravention of international law to deny someone a family life and security of residence, but precisely because hope isthe last thing to die. For many of the refugees I speak to, family separation is already a reality. Desperate people make desperate choices. If you deny family reunification and you offer only temporary visas, you may have fewer refugee families. But instead you’ll have young male overstayers living on the edge of your economy. Just what all migration policies aim to achieve.
So let’s not pretend this is about humanitarian charity. Let’s not pretend its about Australia collapsing under the weight of its refugee burden. This isn’t about protection: it’s about protectionism.