Understanding the asylum seeker debate

What a mess asylum seeker policy appears to be. I say, appears, because there has been so little clear articulation of what it is in the context of other options that existed. To proponents, it is all about looking ‘tough.’ To opponents, it is all about a disproportionate response with high costs in terms of moral authority. It is just hard to know what to make of it all.

What I want to do here, and I am not sure how far I’ll get in a single post, is to try and understand the policy trade-offs and also the constraints on policy choices. But I will start by being upfront about my position on immigration. Immigration is undoubtedly a good thing — both for society and the economy. I think of the freedom of the movement of people to be as desirable, if not more so, than the free movement of goods and capital. It is the ultimate in respecting that people have different views and aspirations and that their lives may be more suited to one region or culture than another. My only caveat comes from the notion that short-term crises can cause mass migrations and that it may be better for everyone concerned to manage those incidents in a coordinated fashion (although I note that the case of Israel and migration after the fall of the Soviet Union demonstrates how it can be done).

The Prime Minister’s speech to the Lowy Institute was actually quite good in positioning the debate as she currently sees it. The issues with asylum seekers are as follows. First, Australia has immigration but it is not unfettered and there are areas where migrants can fill economic gaps. Second, when people are fleeing from political oppression, they should be able to jump the queue. Third, the problem is screening for those people. Fourth, that the demand for migration to Australia is fueling crime against would be migrants — namely, people smuggling. Fifth, some people are racist but that there is an alternative anti-migrant argument based on congestion of public infrastructure.

I want to start by dismissing the last issue as a legitimate anti-migrant concern. Here is what the PM said:

In many faster-growing parts of Australia – like western Sydney, south-east Queensland and the growth corridors of my own electorate in Melbourne’s west, Wyndham and Melton – people would laugh if you told them population growth was intended to improve living standards. People in these communities are on the front line of our population increase and they know that bigger isn’t necessarily better.

Note, however, that this is an anti-population growth argument and not an anti-immigration argument. Our birth rate is twice our net migration rate (which itself is about the same is our death rate). What is responsible for strain on resources is the fact that the Government has not been keeping up with needed infrastructure investing. What is more, natural population growth does not add to the tax base as quickly as migration. So if you are worried about strain on public infrastructure, it is clear where you should direct government policy.

The asylum seeker issue is, of course, not related to the population issue at all. The PM agrees with Julian Burnside that “at the current rate of arrivals it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with boat people.” Indeed, humanitarian migration is a small fraction of total immigration. The asylum seeker issue stems from the fact that we do not have unfettered migration. Instead, we have a quota and the issue is whether asylum seekers should move up in priority. To be sure, if we want to get rid of the asylum seeker problem, the easiest way is to get rid of the quota or to increase it. We surely have to ask ourselves why that is not a seriously discussed policy option. And those politicians need to recognise that not doing so only adds to the perception that they are pandering to interests who oppose immigration on racial grounds.

But let’s take as given the current constraint on immigration. The evidence points squarely to the fact that those asylum seekers who choose to enter Australia outside the official process (that is, on boats) are doing so because they are fleeing political oppression. The PM thankfully acknowledged this. Now that should give us pause. We are trying to work out when an application for asylum seeker is legitimate or not. And by legitimate, we mean that it is not migration for economic improvement (not that there is anything wrong with that) but against political persecution. So surely, the fact that a person or family is willing to subject themselves to the cost and danger of an ocean boat trip to Australia is surely itself a credible signal that they are fleeing something serious rather than looking for some potential economic improvement. The evidence certainly supports that notion.

From a game theoretic perspective, this leads to an interesting notion: that the people smugglers are, in a sense, providing a service. The more exploitative they are, the better is the screen they are performing. It also automatically puts us in the position of wondering whether there could be a better legitimate screening device — and certainly one over the threshold of moral acceptability — than that being provided by people smugglers. I’ll come to that in a moment but first, let’s consider the impact of interventions that have been deployed or suggested.

First, the “turn the boats around” option. This one — even if it were feasible — is basically a policy of — you use legitimate channels or don’t bother. It shares that in common with the “sink the boats” option and its variant. This is a policy intending to shut down people smuggling and it certainly raises its cost. But we have to remember that people smuggling occurred precisely because the legitimate channels were not working for some set of asylum seekers. This doesn’t change that and unless it is 100 percent effective, it won’t even achieve the result of stopping people smuggling.

Second, the “move the boat people into the legitimate process” option. The Pacific solution at a bit of this to it with a ‘punishment’ phase of what amounted to incarceration. The new East Timor notion of a regional processing centre is the latest version hopefully without the punishment phase. The idea of this policy is to say to asylum seekers: you have a choice between (a) participating in the legitimate process or (b) dealing with people smuggling but ending up in the legitimate process anyhow. Of course, like the “turn the boats around” option, we have a group of people who have already found very sizable fault with the legitimate process — enough to risk everything on a leaky boat. So unless capturing the boats is 100 percent effective, this option raises costs but cannot be expected to shut down people smuggling when the demand for it is at its peak.

The problem with all of the current solutions is that they give people only one option — the official process — when the entire issue arises because that option was not acceptable. Moreover, by opting for the official process, there is no other means of signaling your legitimacy to be an asylum seeker. You are pooled into a lower cost process with many others who do not have the political claim to priority and as a consequence, the risks of errors are that much greater. When you are fleeing for your life, do you really want to have a single review option?

What we are looking for is a mechanism that can perform the wisdom of Solomon. Now I don’t mean that asylum seekers should be given the option of just sending their children to Australia (i.e., dividing the family) although that might be a credible signal. But surely we need to think of ways of separating out the claims that allows a greater pool of information and signals to be sent.

So here is my proposal: we need to outsource the review function to Australian, Government recognised aid or philanthropic agencies. And here is how we do it. The Government sets a fee per asylum seeker for entry into Australia — I am going to suggest $20,000 for the sake of argument (but I could also imagine $50,000). Enough to justify any costs to the country that could conceivably arise but more as a means of presenting an opportunity to signal. Now that fee is not something that would be paid by asylum seekers as, by definition, they don’t have that money. Instead, it is a fee that would have to be paid by their sponsoring agency. The idea is that the agency would go out and raise funds with the view of finding asylum seekers and getting them to Australia. They would raise the funds from the community and people who would want to contribute to a fund to allow people to escape political impression. My guess is that that community is substantial enough for this to work. They would then screen and sponsor asylum seekers, make their case and pay the fee.

The idea here is to provide a diversity of options. There would still exist the official process and, indeed, the agencies would be encouraged to assess claims and if they are strong with verifiable information, they can use the official process and save the money. Otherwise, if they meet a set of minimum criterion — essentially, sworn statements of validity — they can pay the fee and move around the official process. The idea of using accredited agencies is that they mission and values could be monitored so that no economic motivated immigrants can use the process. This is also critical as they will be raising charitable contributions to fund all of this.

Basically, I am suggesting that we allow Australian charities and similar organisations to enter the people smuggling business. The numbers of asylum seekers are not so high that they can’t manage it and the fee provides both a means of generating a signal as well as a way of placating political tensions in Australia. We shut people smuggling down by creating a market alternative.

[This post appeared in Crikey on 7th July 2010]

15 thoughts on “Understanding the asylum seeker debate”

  1. an interesting proposal, Josh. It doesnt seem politically acceptable to ask a fee of asylum seekers, and of course what you suggest could quickly be gamed to hide economic migration (anyone wanting to get their granny to Oz from Zimbabwe or South Africa and who now had to pay half a million would probably be able to argue some kind of ‘fear of violence’ case and get them in cheaper), but getting the charities involved in screening sounds interesting. Doesnt this already happen in the form of pro bono help of particular lawyers?


  2. We may find that there are more asylum seekers than sponsors for them, in which case people smuggling would again become a problem. The core problem I think would remain.
    Ultimately, the policy has to rest how many positions in Australian society can and will be offered in any one year, and how to divide that among the legitimate and legitimate system users (both of whom have fair claim and need).
    Those numbers need to be made clearer in any policy.


  3. Why not charge asylum seekers the fee at the same time as providing income contingent loans?
    I think most people object to charging a fee because they are concerned about equity, thinking that this will exclude poor asylum seekers but provide an avenue to Australia for the wealthy. They ignore the incentives – why would a wealthy person living a comfortable life in the UK, say, want to pay to move to Australia? Unlike asylum seekers, they won’t enjoy the benefits of reduced persecution, improved job opportunities etc, they will just get better weather.


  4. Joshua, the trouble is that such a scheme would result in those asylum seekers with wealthy and/or numerous friends in Australia getting in, and those without them missing out.


  5. Joshua, you said that the “fee is not something that would be paid by asylum seekers as, by definition, they don’t have that money. Instead, it is a fee that would have to be paid by their sponsoring agency”
    I presume you assume the sponsoring agency will treat all cases on their merits and not be willing to take donations/sponsorship specifically targetted at an individual asylum seeker (in essence, some “Chinese wall” will existed between fundraising within the agency and their assessment process).
    Only then could we avoid the sort of behaviour Robert ascribes above.


  6. It seems that a much cleaner way of doing this is for the Australian government to simply offer appropriate agencies a number of Australian Humanitarian Visas (in excess of the normal quota) which they can then give to genuine refugees in the places they want to (as long as they are Convention refugees – i.e. fleeing persecution).  This becomes an alternate market for the thing that is, in fact, the product – the visa. Proper genuine agencies do not need the economic incentive, they’ll raise the money they require; they just need the power to provide what it is that refugees need – visas.
    The trouble with all this, including Mr Gans’ ‘solution’ above, is that it doesn’t actually fix the problem; unfortunately, when measured against demand there is effectively an unlimited supply of persecuted people.  The problem is not that there is no alternative ‘queue’, the problem is that there is not a sufficient number of visas.  The real ‘market solution’ for the real problem of refugees is what Mr Gans’ mentioned – a free, global market for people.  As that’s not going to happen, we have to think sensibly about other solutions.
    We are never realistically going to stop persecution, or the people fleeing from it. So, we ‘re never going to stop boats, planes, trucks and trains from delivering refugees from those places to safer climes. Each ‘safe’ community then has to decide them how to we deal with those people when they arrive. We’ve discussed this in 1956 with the UN Convention and came to a conclusion, and if we no longer have a consensus that whoever arrives under these circumstances should be given asylum then maybe we need to do discuss this all again.  That said, I’ll sure we’ll arrive at the same place, and with the same ‘problem’.
    So, we’ve got the inescapable problem that, no matter what, if refugees can get a life free from persecution somewhere else then  they’ll try anything they can to take advantage of that – for them the is little alternative.
    Is there a market solution? Yes, but only if you can increase demand.  That’s not going to happen and no amount of alternative’ transport options’ will help. This is a ‘management’ issue, not market failure.


  7. Best post on Core in a while.
    I disagree that asylum seekers can’t afford to pay the fee; they are already paying people smugglers.
    Why not charge a fee–roughly equivalent to the fee they’d pay a smuggler–to each prospective asylum seeker in return for safe passage. In return, they get a bond, which may be redeemable on both proof of refugee status (almost a given) and the successful completion of some politically-desirable hurdles, like English proficiency one year after arrival, or continued employment. Failure on any count would convert the bond into a plane ticket to X (that’ll sate the voters–and it’s pretty reasonable).
    Such policy should also be doubled up with a hard line on boats, and their owners.
    This would both maintain the signalling aspects of boats, but also provide firm incentives for refugees to get their act together once here. Currently, principal applicants of humanitarian visas have a labour force participation rate of 32%, 18 months after arrival, and of those, 43% are unemployed. http://www.immi.gov.au/media/fact-sheets/14labour.htm
    I’m all for abolishing visas full stop, but the supporting policy is really what determines the success of our immigration programme.


  8. The real problem is one of “Sophie’s Choice” : if there are 100 genuine refugees with presumably equal claims on asylum and your “lifeboat ” can only accommodate 10, which of them gets chosen ?
    Is it to be based on the degree of persecution of one refugee compared with another (the Final Solution victim is more deserving than one simply jailed for political reasons) or on the potential value to the country providing asylum?
    If the latter, the degree of enterprise and risk taking shown by those opting for the people smuggler route suggests such people will providea greater entrepreneurial benefit to the country and should get preference over those prepared to sit in a refugee camp and wait their turn.
    All we need is an objective mechanism to rank them – something like a Refugee Race Around the World perhaps?


  9. I agree with most of your points. Boat arrivals and general immigration are separate issues, both morally and practically. Australia has nothing to fear from boat arrivals, the numbers being so small. The people who should be upset are real refugees who cannot get here that way and consequently miss out.
    The pay for entry idea has been discussed by many people, including me over at LP last year. However, I am very uncomfortable with applying it to refugees. It is not so different from allowing people to bribe their way up the triage scale in an emergency ward. We are supposed to have some moral obligations. For general immigration though it seems dead obvious that we should charge. I do not know what the market value of Australian citizenship is, but I suspect you could get b$10 per year and pay for you beloved NBN with it.
    Your comment ‘I think of the freedom of the movement of people to be as desirable, if not more so, than the free movement of goods and capital.” If by “free” you mean without charge then I disagree with you, and so would most economists I would have thought.


  10. As somebody has pointed out in this discussion thread, demand for asylum in the West exceeds supply. We could expand our refugee/asylum intake by several multiples and that would barely make inroads into the number of people seeking asylum.

    And, as has also been pointed out, those people on board the boats have already paid a not insubstantial fee to be ferried across to Australian waters. In this respect, bypassing the people smuggler channel has some merit. Of course that means selection is occurring on the basis of possessing some ability to pay as opposed to the perceived or actual level of personal danger they may face in their home nation. (Though that’s probably displaying entrepreneurial risk-taking of a sort.)

    I have admiration for those asylum seekers willing to take the risk of coming to Australia by boat. (My parents-in-law arrived in this fashion 30 years ago.) However I don’t think you can objectively reconcile the moral imperatives with the magnitude of the refugee situation or the economic costs. Unfortunately, the root cause of the problem lies in the abyssmal governance and rule of law in many nations. And there are far too many such nations. Anybody for morally-driven foreign intervention in sovereign nations as a solution to refugee persecution?


  11. The following was my post at Crikey’s reprint of the article:
    1. I have no issue with Gans moving the ‘screening process’ to Australian charities (preferably non-religious ones) to prevent selector-bias. But it is unclear that Gans’ proposal is a real alternative to people smugglers (ie not entirely one or t’other route), as boats would still leave Indonesian ports.

    2. Arguably better use of $20,000-50,000 per refugee might be to post a A$50,000 reward, with posters up in all Indonesian port towns, for information leading to the conviction of any person involved in people smuggling. That might dramatically lessen the likelihood of people promoting such unlawful boat trips…. at a far lower cost than housing them once they get here. Such rewards would certainly make it very hard to get the required number of passengers ‘signed-up’ to justify loss of boat and incarceration of skipper. And if the sign-ups end up being done in Malaysia, simply extend the reward to that country. The Australian government could pay private law-enforcement related companies (private security type firms) to actively pursue local law enforcement, making sure that reported offenders were interviewed and convicted where possible.

    3. I think we need to keep a lot of potential immigration “places” available (in reserve) in Australia for mid-century, when large numbers of genuine environmental refugees will start arriving, with no hope of returning to their homes. Europe’s population is no lower today for the fact that hundreds of millions emmigrated to the USA, Canada, Australia, NZ, South Africa, etc . Populations tend to return to “carrying capacity”. Until mid-century, the best charities to support may be family planning ones in the fastest-growing poor or low-lying countries (though the current fashion is to support child health initiatives, which have the opposite effect on population size).

    4. Australia might also like to review Japan’s policies, as Japan decides sources of migrants based on their ‘capacity to fit in culturally”. The logic is that there are many times more ‘eligible’ refugees than places, so one may as well select those who will be successfully integrated. Using this logic, Australia ought have lower intakes from countries/cultures which believe in death for apostacy, honour killings, and which bar inter-marriage, as these beliefs run contrary to Australian law and/or basic rights. The barring of inter-marriage means the cultural clash will simply build till one faces the types of issues now faced in France. The groups who allow inter-marriage integrate within decades, whereas those who bar inter-marriage remain estranged for centuries. It was a root cause of the Balkan war, as different groups had lived absolutely side-by-side for many centuries, but never allowed inter-marriage. This is to be contrasted with Australia’s very successful migration following WW2, where almost all groups inter-married significantly within two generations. And let’s remember that there are lots of groups who don’t allow inter-marriage, notably Jews, Brethren, Amish etc – indeed most of the more fundamentalist groups of the Abrahamic ‘big-three monotheistic faiths’. So the issue is certainly not just about Muslims, but rather deals only with the statistics/likelihood of eventual integration. So, it is not about dog-whistling, but solely about outcomes-based decisions, as we use in most public health decisions and most other public policy decisions.

    Similarly, if it is found that Tongan youth (to cite one group whose youth has hit the media) show heightened levels of anti-social crimes, then the Tongan community in Australia would have it explained to them that Tonga would be lowered to the “lower immigration quota” group, until they can get on top of the ‘not fitting in’ problem. This feedback loop is currently missing.

    All of these good/poor fit ‘points’ ought be simply considered in the mix of issues, along with skills, English-language knowledge etc to contribute to overall immigration decisions. We are a vibrant society as a result of our high levels of immigration, and while we have celebrated multi-culturalism, there has in fact been a rapid rate of integration. And not one problem of note from the huge Vietnamese immigration of the 1980s! But the Cronulla riots did show that we are close to the maximum rate of absorption (at least for disparate groups).

    Unfortunately the logical outcome of using evidence-based decisions is that we need to take into account the $200-300m annual costs to monitor for London-bombing-style ‘home-grown terrorists’, which is a hugely disproportionate cost to monitor just 0.2m Muslims in Australia. And it is not that the other monotheistic faiths haven’t done their share of killing, but the Jews did more of their genocide as well documented in the Old Testament; and the Christians did lots of killing of others and their own from the Crusades to the Inquisition… but both groups have finally moderated their views to denounce killing over issues of faith. But the Shiite/Sunni war still rages, and violent jihad is very popular around the world at present. Moreover, until this past decade no-one would have suspected the risk of young Muslim men brought up entirely in the West becoming dedicated to mass-destruction of their own countrymen (a Cheney ‘unknown unknown’). So if you asked the spooks, they would say that every bit of Muslim immigration one can avoid saves us a fortune in own-soil monitoring costs. Such cost-benefit would say we could bring in ten Tamils for every Iraqi/Afghan migrant we skip. If you took up a collection in Australia for funds to monitor for home-grown terrorists, you might be lucky to collect just 1% of the amount the Australian government actually spends on this activity – meaning that Australians generally see little value in such work… Arguably Australians would prefer the money be spent on green energy, public transport or health. Yet the intelligence experts would say we HAVE to spend that fortune on home-based security, and the population is simply deluded by the fact that Australia’s intelligence agencies have foiled all home-grown terrorism.

    None of the above fails to recognise that 99.99x of the Muslim population is peace-loving (though not inter-breeding)… but the covert habits of jihadists and secretive nature of the Islamic community make it incredibly expensive to monitor that small fraction that the Muslims of Australia will not properly denounce.

    I hope the above is the type of non-PC dialogue the PM encouraged us to have. The above comments have nothing to do with race, and nothing to do with private religious beliefs… but it does deal with the cost/benefit to society as a whole to consider from where immigration ought be sourced. While Bush’s crazy wars in Arab countries continue, for reasons of security costs alone, we ought take more Tamils and refugees from sub-Saharan Africa (there are heaps of ’em) and leave the Middle East refugees to be absorbed by other like cultures (and who are not at war with the countries they’ve come from)…. or just swap the citizenship question about who was Australia’s first Prime Minister to one asking “Are you genuinely relaxed in a country where anyone’s religious figures/beliefs might appear in comics and jokes?” – It is not a biased question, but properly positing the Western-level of religious tolerance!


  12. Graeme,
    my my, you don’t hold back, do you?
    By and large I agree with your cost-benefit assessments, though your proposal to ethnically select migrants would of course be scuppered on the altar of equal treatment, though it might become implicit policy as many will secretly agree with you. On the other points, I dont think any politician can seriously suggest employing soldiers-of-fortune to track down people-smugglers. Its a humorous idea, but a non-flier. Finally, planning now for potential climate refugees in 2050 seems unnecessary. Migration volumes are variable enough over time for that kind of decision to be made much closer to mid-century. And, dont forget, most of the world is already used to import its food (namely cities importing food from other places), meaning that places that become arid need not actually depopulate.


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