Wednesday, October 31, 2012

On the limits of the power of refugee policy

What is to be done about refugee policy? I guess "do what a normal country does" would be my preference. We have to accept that despite our wealth and effective government, that we're not omipotent. As long as there's conflict and people fleeing persecution, they will attempt hazardous means of movement to obtain security when that seems the best option.

People walk across deserts, over mountain ranges, through jungles to escape war and persecution. They cram into the back of trucks, they sneak through border fences, they dodge corrupt and violent authorities in countries where they have no rights and often get beaten, extorted or deported. And yes, they attempt hazardous boat trips over open ocean. Australia is not a uniquely risky destination. I think we need to respect that one corollary of the right to asylum is the right to take risks to reach safety and that people have taken plenty of risks to even get near to Australia in order to attempt the final marine trip.

Furthermore I am fairly certain the attempts at "deterrence" push people to more dangerous and risky routes, in less seaworthy boats, and toward trying to avoid detection by Australian authorities (ie, the would-be-rescuers). I bet we could save lives by changing practise regarding those who facilitate the movement of people wishing to seek asylum. Excising the mainland pushed people towards Christmas Island, how many lives would reversing that decision have saved?

But at any rate, you never see people say America has Cuban people's "blood on their hands" for the way they give automatic residency to Cubans who reach Florida by boat. Does anybody say Spain or Italy have a responsibility to stop asylum seekers from Africa attempting the Mediterranean journey across the Straits of Gibraltar or to Lampedusa. Sure they have issues with racism, but does the "protect these people from drowning" narrative even make sense in Miami or Malaga?

Why do we have such a different discourse here? Why don't those countries attempt anything like what Australia does? Is it because they recognise that this is a thing which happens, and that no policy is maximalist enough to stop asylum seekers from deciding moving is more of a risk than not moving? Do such countries see their role as simply being a place where asylum can be sought?

By framing our entire policy around "stopping the boats", the main interest seems to be avoiding sad and politically charged images of shipwrecks on our doorstep, images which which impact elections and make people uncomfortable about the cruelty of the world and our own luck and privilege.

By making impossible the boat journey to Australia, we're eliminating both one risk and one opportunity, and closing off options for already desperate people. Unfortunately, with that focus, we're actually fairly literally just wishing refugees would just go somewhere else so we don't have to deal with them.

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