John Hewson
Exporting Australia’s refugee policy

The number of refugees and asylum seekers is approaching crisis proportions in many parts of the globe, seriously challenging governments and policy authorities. Unfortunately, the politics and public discourse on this issue has been unedifying, having brought out the worst reactions of many societies, ranging from racism to inhumanity. 

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has reported that in mid-2023 there were about 110 million forcibly displaced people worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations or other events. Of these, 62.5 million were internally displaced and 36.4 million were identified as refugees, with 6.1 million as asylum seekers and 5.3 million other people in need of international protection. Disturbingly, 52 per cent originated from just three countries: the Syrian Arab Republic, Afghanistan and Ukraine. The unfolding crisis in the Middle East seems certain to result in another significant category of Palestinian refugees, who it seems may flee from Gaza into Egypt, although Egypt has been reluctant to open its border. 

Perhaps the most controversial category of displaced persons, which has received considerable global attention in recent years, has been so-called illegal immigrants, namely those who seek to enter or remain in a country against that country’s immigration laws. There has been a particular focus on this in the United States since the 1980s, but especially since Donald Trump made it an election issue, promising particularly extreme measures to tighten the country’s porous southern border.

Trump promised to build a border wall and have Mexico pay for it. His main political argument, contrary to the evidence, was that among those people were rapists, drug dealers and other criminals who should be stopped at all costs. The evidence suggests most of these identified criminals entered the US through legal immigration, and illegal immigrants commit fewer crimes than citizens. The number of illegal immigrants in the US peaked by 2007, reaching about 12.2 million, or about 4 per cent of the US population. Illegal border crossings have declined considerably since, with visa overstays becoming the most significant source.

There is an active debate about the economics of this immigration, which has increased the size of the US economy and added to its growth, contributing more tax revenue than this group collects, reducing the incentive for firms to send jobs offshore and import foreign goods, benefiting consumers by reducing the prices of goods and services and enhancing the welfare of citizens.

Nevertheless, it looks as if the issue of illegal immigrants will again be dominant in the US presidential elections later this year, given Trump’s sustained criticism of President Joe Biden’s response to the challenge, with all the dishonest, racist and divisive overtones of the worst of this debate.

This same ugly debate is replicated across the West. The fear campaign over the possibility of Britain being swamped by illegal immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa was apparently a major reason for the referendum result in favour of Brexit. The concern was if the United Kingdom remained it would be under pressure from the European Union’s collective response to accept and settle “their share” of these arrivals, as exemplified by the then Merkel government’s response in Germany.

The latter response has since been criticised as being too generous and for predominately accepting single males, resulting in considerable social dislocation. There are now about three million refugees, including Ukrainians on top of those from Syria’s civil war, living in Germany. The prospect of taking even more this year, the most since the height of the migrant crisis in 2015, has seen considerable pressure on the Scholz government from some states and municipalities claiming to be already overwhelmed. This has resulted in more money to these states and municipalities to host these arrivals, but little progress in managing numbers.

An important reason for this is Germany has been seen as the most attractive destination for these asylum seekers, having established a generous welcoming reputation. More than 60 per cent of applications submitted by Syrians to the EU in the first half of 2023 were made in Germany.

This has resulted in what has been described as an “awkward dance” between Germany and the EU, with Chancellor Olaf Scholz sticking with the Merkel position, declaring the hope of European “solidarity” in sharing the burden of hosting these refugees. Few other European countries seem receptive to the concept, although countries have agreed to the New Pact on Migration and Asylum that is yet to be passed by the sceptical European parliament.

This suggests much of the fear created in the Brexit debate was misplaced. It is now clear the UK would not have been alone in resisting burden-sharing in hosting refugees. The costs of this vote are now being understood in Britain, which worried more about asylum seekers than about the fact the EU was its major trading partner.

Scholz has real political problems domestically over the issue, attempting to walk a narrow line between his coalition partners, the Free Democrats and the Greens, who are pro-refugee rights, and the far-right opposition Alternative for Germany (AfD), which is pushing for a harder line on asylum seekers. There have been some very divisive rallies in recent days. Recent polling suggests the German public is also increasingly intolerant of immigrants. There seems to be a growing, incomprehensible mood that says these people should just be sent back to the countries from which they have come.

An unfortunate aspect of the recent debate about asylum seekers has been the interest in some sort of offshore detention, establishing asylum centres in third countries. As attractive as it may seem to those on the right of politics, many on the left see this as a violation of refugee rights.

Obviously many are watching Britain’s attempt at this with its Rwanda solution. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is having to deal with internal Tory Party division over his enabling legislation “to stop the boats” crossing the channel. The UK’s Supreme Court had earlier said the plan was unlawful. It has also been criticised as “a riddle without a solution”. The reality is Britain has never had an effective immigration policy.

Former British prime minister Theresa May summarised the attitude of the British public to illegal immigration in her recent bio, The Abuse of Power, writing: “The public generally objected to the fact that people could come to the UK illegally, yet carry on living here with jobs, homes, bank accounts. They could not understand how this was possible.” She went on to document the various measures attempted over the years, with an important qualification: “So through all of this we are on the one hand a group of people who made their lives here, contributed to our economy and society, brought up their families here, who were British and saw no reason why anyone should question that; and on the other hand, successive governments of all parties introducing increasingly tight rules and not realising in doing this that their actions could have a devastating impact on those who were here legally but did not have anything from the government to prove it.”

May’s book provides useful background to the adoption of the desperate Rwanda solution. Indeed, recently the UK has been attracted to the so-called Australian solution, with a points-based immigration assessment system and offshore detention. At first blush, the focus on Rwanda seems ridiculous, even though Rwanda has a history of hosting asylum seekers, yet the idea of “out of sight, out of mind” is politically appealing to some, as well as the disincentive of ending up in Rwanda.

Under the scheme, no asylum seeker can apply to return to Britain. They could ask to have their claims assessed and processed in Rwanda and if successful be granted refugee status and allowed to stay there. If not, they could apply to settle in Rwanda on other grounds or seek asylum in another “safe third country”.

Hear the echoes of John Howard and Tony Abbott? Britain reserves the right to, as Howard put it in 2001, “decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come”.

While I am sure that many in the Coalition would arrogantly be proud that their asylum-seeker policy is now setting the pace in European and British discussions, I can’t help but feel some embarrassment for our nation about the fundamental inhumanity of the approach. This embarrassment is compounded by the fact governments here never “completed” their obligations: they failed to negotiate a resettlement agreement with source, transit and destination countries to give these mostly desperate refugees a realistic hope for their future. This cruel, incomplete system is now being tried on by the rest of the world.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 3, 2024 as "Exporting asylum policy".

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