The prisoners’ dilemma and refugee policy


The federal government has apparently designed a great prisoners’ dilemma to be played by asylum seekers and refugees. According to the ABC television news, all asylum seekers are put into one category (both on-shore and off-shore) with a cap on the number that Australia will accept each year. But if you are in Australia your application is processed first and you will be ‘accepted’ earlier than if you are in an overseas refugee camp.

The result?

Well the optimal outcome is for refugees not to risk life and limb to get to Australia through the use of people smugglers and unseaworthy vessels. But your chance of being accepted as a refugee in Australia rises if you travel to Australia by some means. The more people that do this, the lower your chance of acceptance if you wait in a refugee camp. So the dominant strategy equilibrium is for refugees to pile into leaky boats and try for Australia rather than wait in refugee camps.

This is nuts. A simple policy change will help. Set a generous target for off-shore refugees that is completely independent of the number of on-shore refugees. This will not fix the problem of refugees drowning but at least it will reduce the incentives to try and make it to Australia as a refugee.

One Response to "The prisoners’ dilemma and refugee policy"
  1. Well, the game is true in theory, but i seriously doubt people in refugee camps decide whether to come to Australia based on whether 100% or 70% of the places are available to them if they wait. The chances of getting a place if they wait it out are quite small even if every spot is available unfortunatley. 

    The chances of success if you travel by boat are much more likely to influence the decision. And it’s been shown governments can affect this by the harshness of their policy.  

    And if we did have so many people coming by boat that few places were available to offshore applicants and thus affect their decisions, than i doubt it would be politically sustainable to greatly increase your overall refugee intake, which is what your suggestion would do.

    I think the overall cap is sensible, though i wish we would raise it by 2-3% per year, so as to make the implementation problems of accepting more refugees less burdensome.

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