The idea of being able to "Stop the boats" is akin to zero tolerance on drugs, prohibition of alcohol, or teenage abstinence. Governments cannot regulate human behaviour, especially when the humans haven't even reached your shores yet.
There has been a massive rise in displaced persons around the world in recent years. This means more people seeking asylum globally. This means more refugees in boats. We call this "push factors".
All of the policy discussion in Australia for the last decade has been around punitive measures to stop one kind of refugee, the boat people. In 1992 the mandatory detention policy was put in place, with bi-partisan support, as a temporary measure. It's proved expensive and currently is not working. The deterrent simply doesn't stack up against the desperation of so many displaced people.
I want a policy debate that focuses on the needs of these people, not one that focuses on the racist paranoia of a few privileged Australians. So what alternative policies might change the current situation?
The money currently spent on detention is in the order of $100,000 a year per person. Instead of locking up people who have already been through hell what if we spent some of those funds on creating a better way to get them to Australia? Here's a simple outline for a cheaper, kinder and smarter response to the international humanitarian emergency.
1. Increase our intake: Australia accepts piss all numbers of refugees compared to the rest of the world. We need to stop whining about the numbers arriving and get real about the benefits of accepting them into our communities. We are a wealthy nation and most of us here are migrants of a sort anyway.
2. Improve Processing Times: Why does it take years to process refugees in Australia and only months to do it in Sweden? We spend all our dollars on detention instead of a solution. A very small percentage of asylum seekers end up failing our criteria for refugee status, so currently we're punishing the many for the sake of the few.
3. Bring them here safely: People wont jump on a boat and risk their lives if they have a better way to get here, or a better way to apply for asylum. Creating legal pathways for refugees removes the economics of boat smuggling, and stops people from drowning at sea. This is not a trivial challenge, it requires cooperation between nations, but it's a more achievable goal than trying to get Indonesia to stop the smugglers.
My simple equation is not a new one, but I haven't seen these ideas talked about in the media recently. Having just penned my thoughts I saw a tweet from Sarah Hanson-Young on a similar thread. Turns out The Greens have a well documented policy along these lines, as was submitted to the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers led by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston.
It's very detailed and tackled some of the practical issues around creating safer pathways. This is where our debate should currently be focused. Below is a copy of the submission from The Greens. I know our political leaders and media are not in the habit of reading the details as often as they should, but perhaps a few words can stick in the memory somewhere and maybe stir some motivation to dig deeper on alternatives:
Cheaper. Kinder. Smarter.
Australian Greens submission can be found here. (pdf)
Cartoon from Bruce Petty, The Age (link)