In Australia, whenever a new leaky boat full of desperate asylum seekers shows up, it’s treated with hysteria in the media. If the government of the day doesn’t react with cruelty, it’s considered to be weak on border security. And every time the approach to dealing with asylum seekers wanders further from humanitarian norms, it’s lauded as a solution to he problem.
Well, is it? As former prime minister Malcolm Fraser put it:
no democratic Australia could ever impose penalties or hardships on refugees which could match the terror from which most of them fleeSo even if deterrence could work, should Australia attempt that?
And, anyway, is the view that numbers spike when the policy softens and go down when it gets harsher valid?
Correlation isn’t causation. You have to look at the push factors as well, and those definitely are causation. More refugees at source = more arriving at destination. Nothing could be simpler.
Even with the latest increases the numbers are not that high by world standards. If you look at UNHCR stats, 2012 had the highest number of new refugees since 1999. Australian stats for boat arrivals peak in 1999-2000 when numbers at source previously peaked, and they shoot up again over the last year when the number of new refugees shot up.
Some refugee stats here show that Australia does not have a serious problem, and treating a relatively small number of arrivals as a huge crisis for national security is not warranted.
Why is it impossible for any party besides the Greens to be rational on this? Could it be because anything but xenophobic hysteria results in a media beat-up?
Here in South Africa, genuine illegal immigrants (mostly economic migrants from Zimbabwe) amount to 10% of the population, yet all sides of politics condemn xenophobia when it flares up. Australia only leads the world in one respect as far as refugees go: mainstreaming of xenophobia.
Anyway numbers don’t lie so let’s check them. The graph here shows the difference for each year between reported numbers for that year and the year before of refugees (I use the UNHCR’s refugee count, excluding categories like internally displaced persons and Palestinians who are less likely to arrive in a distant country) and boat arrivals in Australia. The UN numbers are for a calendar year, while the Australian reporting period is a financial year (1 July–30 June). This is not a bad thing however as a 6-month delay takes into account the time between a push factor and a boat arrival.
The graph illustrates that upticks in numbers arriving correspond closely to upticks in the number of refugees over the previous year. The green line is the difference between boat arrivals in Australia and the number the previous year, and the blue line is the difference between UNHCR reported numbers of refugees versus the previous year. The lines mostly correspond pretty well, with just the major uptick in refugees in 2006 failing to result in major change in boat arrivals. The 2006 increase may however have arisen from a reporting anomaly (see UNHCR Statistical Yearbook 2006, Chapter 2, p pp 25–26) rather than a major change in real refugee numbers.
Eyeballing data is risky: we should really do the stats. So let’s look at whether the data correlates. The correlation coefficient is statistically significant: r=0.56, and if we do a t-test for significance, the p-value is 0.006. So yes, this is a real correlation that explains the data well. And we can assign a cause to it, so we are not guilty of assigning causality to a coincidence.
So couldn’t the John Howard “Pacific Solution” actually be the cause of the decline in boat arrivals? That started in 2001 when the number of boat people hit a peak. So let’s mark that on the graph. The red arrow points to the 2001 data point where we can see that the push factors were already declining. And the number of boat arrivals also declined. Given that the correlation is also also strong before 2001 (0.60, though we don’t have enough data points for statistical significance, p=0.057), it is unlikely that being tough on asylum seekers actually had a significant chilling effect on boat arrivals. The only data point that lends comfort to xenophobia is the apparent 2006 increase in refugees but as we have seen that is not a real increase (mostly Iraqi refugees of the 2003 war in Syria and Jordan who had not previously been counted).
Anyway I present the data for you to make up your own mind. To me it looks pretty clear that being harsh on asylum seekers is nothing more than bad politics, dragging the political discourse down to the gutter. Mainstream politics, it seems is presented with no alternative but to go this route for fear of vilification by the commercial media. The Greens are the only party of significance that has resisted the politics of fear and xenophobia. Good on them. I hope they do well this election.