Book Review: “Bridging Troubled Waters – Australia and asylum seekers”


Bridging Troubled Waters – Australia and asylum seekers”, Tony Ward, Australian Scholarly Publishing Ltd, North Melbourne, 2017


Why has refugee policy been so haphazard over the years, and failure so common?

Tony Ward utilises his economics and government background to assess Australia’s policies for their effectiveness (achievement of objectives) and efficiency (least-cost provision). His important contribution is to draw on the substantial evidence now available, and analyse what he sees as the big issues: minimising deaths at sea and boat journeys, securing the longterm futures of the 2 000 refugees offshore and 32 000 onshore, and assisting asylum seekers in our region, especially in Indonesia.

“Bridging” is in the book’s title because he seeks a “balancing act” between “stop the boats” and “bring them here”. Balance is an enigmatic word: these are abnormal times in refugee movements, and if we were to match proportionally the German commitment, we would be taking 300 000 not the current 25 000.

Unfortunately, he begins on the wrong foot by talking about socially acceptable levels of migration and extending this concept to asylum seekers. There are linkages between migration targets and refugee re-settlement quotas, but the fixed element is the Refugee Convention obligation to offer protection (though not resettlement) from “persecution” to all who seek it from within our territory. It is worth reminding ourselves that the crux of the conflict and the erratic response is because there are domestic political consequences from extra-territorial entry, and controversy about which control measures are legitimate and feasible.

An alternative “bridging” proposal is put forward by advocate Fr. Frank Brennan (a professor of law) who contends that the Convention obligation does not extend to the great majority of refugees, who embark by boat to Australia from “transit countries” such as Indonesia rather than in direct flight from persecution. This conclusion is contested, but it seems agreed by all (including the Australian government) that asylum seekers cannot be returned to a place where they will be persecuted.

As Robert Manne found last November, Canberra has been in a delusionary paranoia that the slightest “slippage” in policy would unravel the whole system of deterrence. It’s hard not to see this as confected for domestic political purposes: you don’t need to endorse the Australian navy’s “ring of steel” to see a demonstrated capability to stop the boats (from 278 in 2012 and 300 in 2013, to 31 turned back since then). Ward has bought the argument that “any softening” of current policies would re-start the boats, and cites prominent advocates Brennan, Costello, Manne and Menadue (hereafter BCMM) in support. However they also call for emptying the offshore detention disasters, and in a later iteration expand this to condition their support of naval turnbacks that it be legal, transparent and safe to do so.

His two sides over-simplify the debate: “Bring them here” does not have to be a call for open borders or a slogan for all time. Offshore detention of the type we have now is shown by numerous inquiries to be inevitably oppressive, ineffective and inefficient, but there have been other proposals not considered here from Labor for Refugees and Julian Burnside to prevent deaths at sea. These involve processing in Indonesia followed by air journeys to Australia. If this was ever agreed to by Indonesia, Antje Missbach says it would likely be at Sumba Island, only 700 km from Australia, which would be unsatisfactory to Australia.

Some of Ward’s stronger findings about the evidence may be surprising. Two policies introduced to reduce boat arrivals—Temporary Protection Visas in 1999 and the “no advantage” test in November 2012— resulted in higher boat arrivals in the twelve months following. He reports international studies which show that domestic deterrent factors, such as detention on arrival, changes in visa and welfare conditions, and government communication strategies have little effect on intending refugees. The big promises in the US agreement of late 2016 also didn’t re-start the boats, so fears of resettlement as an incentive seem overblown.  “Push” factors are about double the weight of “pull” factors in people movements: “if people fear for their lives, other considerations fade in significance.” Recent research by Antje Missbach with refugees in Indonesia is very important in understanding the “push” factors external to Australia—she says people in transit rarely follow set plans, and are motivated to escape rather than to find a specific destination. They often end up in “stuckedness” –  permanent temporariness in a country which doesn’t want them, where they cannot participate.

Ward reports Pew Foundation international surveys which show that nativism—the importance placed on being locally born, and having the majority language and religion—is of relatively low importance in Australia (with some divergence around education and political allegiance). Over the last forty years, changes in the percentage of the Australian population who think the migration level is too high closely tracks the unemployment rate, but has no correlation with actual migration flows. For refugees, the trend for support is declining , a likely consequence of reduced empathy due to physical separation of refugees.

He consolidates information showing the enormous cost savings of community detention – including reduced harm to individuals – and promotion of community integration. Jobs, education, language training and housing are the key, and policies which promote social and family connectedness. Studies show over the long term the upfront investment is returned. Both kids in schools and adults in workplaces want normalisation.  It is incongruous that the 34 000 or so on restrictive TPV or SHEV visas can’t access Permanent Residency visas (approx. 200 000 p.a.) or temporary working visa (600 000 p.a.).

On regional assistance, our leaders’ inconsistent and negative practice means that we are distrusted in Indonesia, Nauru and PNG, countries we are in direct partnership with on refugee matters. We only accepted 580 refugees from Indonesia in the ten years to 2010—no wonder many people left Java by boat—yet we expected high co-operation from their government in preventing it. The most useful work seems to be through Track 2 dialogues: unofficial forums for NGOs, academics and decisionmakers in a private capacity to exchange views out of the limelight.

This book wants to be a guide to change, a technocratic manual to realise the humanitarian obligations by government towards those who have come under its control, but it can’t be the whole answer. It presumes political goodwill – what if one side has polling evidence that dragging refugees into any political discussion delivers a sugar hit to their base? A strategy to de-politicise decisionmaking is needed for change.

A part-answer to our original question come from historian Klaus Neumann. He points out that much of the bipartisanship and positivity in previous “kinder” periods was due to nation-building goals post-WW2 when refugees were useful migrants, and the Cold War and post-Vietnam obligations of Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke towards Indochinese refugees. Containment and repatriation policies came to the fore when these factors disappeared. Perhaps the UN New York Declaration of 2016 will provide an external influence to improve the quality of our decisionmaking.

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