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Banning boat arrivals

Three years plus a few months ago, shortly after Kevin Rudd replaced Julia Gillard as Prime Minister and Labor leader and shortly before the ALP was crushed at a federal election, Rudd announced a new refugee policy. No asylum seeker arriving by boat would ever be resettled in Australia.

A couple of days ago, in a policy move that's generating a lot more confusion and tea-leaf-reading than most, Peter Dutton apparently re-announced this policy. That's not exactly what happened, but I think it's the best way to understand it. Dutton was declaring that nobody who arrived by boat would ever be able to come to Australia on any type of visa, including family reunification or even as a tourist. This is an incredibly marginal, basically zero-impact policy change, and if the government really cared about doing this it could just do it. There's no need for fanfare, because the change is so minor. That's why it's better understood as an attempt to get the headlines saying you're banning boat arrivals, even though that policy's been in place for more than three years.
Let's just dwell on the insignificance of this policy change for a moment. There are about 1200 asylum seekers in Australian detention. Not all of them will be affected, since the new policy is only going to apply to people who arrived after July 19th 2013. (I can't get any good numbers on how many people are actually affected.) So it's a few hundred people. Dutton said that it was important to make clear to these people that they'd never be able to live in Australia, and also to take off the table the possibility that some of them might marry Australians (who? journalists? their caseworkers?) and so get residence rights. I think it's fair to say that this is not making any difference to the life plans of the refugees on Nauru and Manus.

The policy also applies to future boat arrivals, which is the core of its rationale: it's meant to close off any possibility that coming by boat could secure settlement in Australia, and so discourage people from making the journey. This is obviously laughable. The idea that anyone would travel on a leaky boat to Australia, on the off chance that they might find an Australian spouse whilst in offshore detention, or that they might be settled in a third country and then get a tourist visa, doesn't have even the slightest credibility.

So what's actually going on? Sean Kelly and Katharine Murphy are worth reading on that question. Broadly, the main possibilities seem to be:
  • the Coalition is trying to gin up a way to look tough on refugees, to appeal to One Nation voters and wedge the Labor Party, but got stuck on the fact that most of the harshest measures have already been taken.
  • the government is gearing up to resettle some (most? all?) of these refugees to other countries, and needed this policy to shore up its border security credentials in advance of that.
My pessimistic instincts incline much more strongly to the first explanation, but there's gathering evidence that the second might be close to the truth. (The two are obviously quite closely related, in any case.) But we can cross our fingers, and I do like the idea that Barack Obama might use his lame-duck period to end the terribleness of Australia's refugee policy. And it would fit with the argument I made a while back, that Australian immigration politics uses relatively low-impact, high-rhetoric policy shifts to cover up the places it's quite generous.

(Plug: generous resettlement for the refugees currently in detention would take advantage of the structural fact, which I discussed in this deep-dive, that what we do with those refugees doesn't have that much impact on whether more asylum seekers come in future or not.)

We'll have to wait and see, by the looks of things. Whatever happens, though, there's a lot about this policy and the whole situation that's tragic and reprehensible. The fact that Australia as a country needs to be told it's being harsh on refugees before we can tolerate doing anything compassionate is truly depressing. Even if that's not actually true, it's telling enough that politicians of all parties seem to believe it.

Then there's the fact that this is a retroactive policy shift. I'm not really that fussed about the abstract principles that tell against implementing retroactive law. The real problem, from my point of view, is that applying the policy to the future would be enough to get deterrent effects; applying it retroactively to people already in detention is gratuitous cruelty. But it's worth noting that earlier this year Australian politicians from both major parties got very agitated about a superannuation policy proposed by Malcolm Turnbull, on the basis that it was (or might have been) retroactive. That policy affected how much beneficial tax treatment very wealthy people could claim for their retirement savings. This one affects whether people who are already very vulnerable and have been appallingly treated will have the right to live in the same country as someone they love, or even visit a country they spent years locked up dreaming about. And yet the retroactive imposition of such serious penalties on people doesn't seem to be concerning our politicians much at all.

Being blocked from coming to Australia as a tourist is obviously not the worst thing that can happen to someone. In some ways, that makes the injustice even less arguable. The moral tradeoff embodied in Australian asylum policy is that we deny people some rights and benefits in order to prevent future deaths at sea. That only makes sense if the harsh treatment concerns something that actually affects people's choices about whether to make the boat journey. There's just no way that this policy shift would affect the decision-making of any potential asylum seeker, which means it's just punishing those who've previously sought asylum for no good reason at all. Even if the punishment isn't that bad, that's still clearly unjust.

If this does turn out to be political cover for getting people out of our island prisons, then all of this will be rightly overshadowed. But it's still sad.