Wednesday, 4 September 2013

My take on the asylum-seeker debate

Unlike many political issues this election, I believe the asylum seeker issue has actually seen meaningful debate. Various different solutions have been discussed, albeit from a political standpoint.

I say this only to differentiate from issues like gay marriage, which have been the subject of much talk, but no meaningful debate. Beyond that, I can't say that the asylum seeker debate has been effective or unbiased.

I am not going to discuss the demonisation of 'boat people' in mainstream Australian media. I don't need to. I am not going to discuss how dangerous it is for people to be travelling to Australia by boat, and I don't think it is worth arguing that we should be trying to stop people from making this perilous journey.

I am going to discuss what we should be doing to save lives, and increase the quality of life for millions of refugees around the world.

Underlying issues:
This morning, it was reported that approximately 67 people were killed in Baghdad, in a wave of 'coordinated bombings.' (ABC News article here)

It is becoming clearer that the Assad regime has been using chemical weapons against the rebels in Syria, which has been suffering unrest for some time.

The Egyptian situation is rapidly devolving into another civil war.

These are just the headline issues; there are also the ongoing tragedies in the Gaza area, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and much of North- and South Africa. These conflicts have displaced an estimated 42.5 million people, both internally and externally (as estimated by the UNHCR at the end of 2011).

The reasons people seek asylum are varied, but can be categorised as follows:

  • Fearing persecution based on race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion
  • Fearing harm caused by upheaval, whether civil war, international war, or other causes.
  • Fleeing corrupt and violent regimes, and other political motivations (such as seeking freedom of expression)
  • Fleeing famine, disease, or natural disaster.
  • Seeking better circumstances
What should happen to people in each of these categories is subject to much debate. Obviously, the first definition is that of a genuine refugee, and the signatories to the Refugee Convention accept a number of people under that category every year. 

This article, entitled "Asylum Trends Australia", published by the Australian Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) in 2012, defines a refugee as "someone who would face persecution in their home country on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." 

Notably, "the definition does not include people who leave their country because of generalised civil disturbance or war, famine, natural disasters or in order to seek a better life."

The Australian Context:
Australia receives between 1 and 3% of all applications for asylum. That puts us between 10 and 13th in the world, for applications received. (See Asylum Trends Australia, above). Amazingly, that converts to a total of 14,415 applications received in the 2011-2012 period. That number has dramatically increased since 2002, but the numbers are not significant.

If every single one of those refugees was granted asylum, and given a new-start payment, at the maximum single rate ($497/fortnight, per this page), the Australian government would be paying each of them $12,922/year, for a total of $186 million.

By contrast, as of September 2012, there were 330,406 people receive Newstart or Youth Allowance (Per this Parliamentary site), which equates to $4.269 BILLION per year. At one point in 2009, that number was 427,500 people on Newstart.

Ok, so the influx of 14,000 new people every year won't drain the NewStart coffers. If you assume that the cost to infrastructure (schools, health, etc.) is balanced by the contributions many of them will make in the workforce, then it isn't much of an impost. Also consider that Labor spent $51,000 studying ergonomic chairs to reduce workplace injuries. If 10 people are not off work for a month due to back injuries, paid for by WorkCover, you have covered your research! (Slightly off-topic, but hey, who cares, this is a blog!)

There is a wonderful story about an Iraqi who, after coming to Australia spent nearly 12 months on Centrelink benefits, and tried to pay back Centrelink over $18,000. (Story here) Then there is the stereotype that immigrants have a better work-ethic. Imagine if we could harness that man-power efficiently, rather than locking them up as criminals.

Finally, let's look at the cost of detaining people. Crikey estimates that as $113,000 PER ASYLUM SEEKER, over a 10-year period. Hey, as far as I can see, that nearly equates to what they would have been paid on new-start over the same period, assuming they were ON newstart for that entire period!

So the numbers aren't crushing, and the sums don't support mandatory detention as a benefit to the Australian economy. I argue that we would benefit as a nation by allowing asylum seekers to enter the community until their claims were assessed.

Other arguments for another day:

  • Cut the 'baby bonus' and focus instead on immigration
  • Spend money developing 'queues' in Indonesia, PNG, and other nations, so that people have a legitimate method of arriving once they have fled their home country. 
  • Assess the cost/benefit to Australia of increasing immigration from refugee

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