Skip to main content

The pull-factor pathology

I'll hopefully have something published later this week about the Manus Island catastrophe and the lessons it should teach the EU, so here is something briefer about the total senselessness of the suffering Australia is now inflicting.

If we let ourselves assume away the xenophobia that drives most of the political argument, there's one strand of argument used to justify the offshore processing regime that has some truth to it. When a more welcoming policy towards boat arrivals is in place, more people are inclined to get on boats from Indonesia and Sri Lanka to Australia, and that can mean that more people die at sea. This is the pull-factor logic that underlies moves to make the boat journey into a risk with no payoff: by implementing mandatory detention, offshore processing, Temporary Protection Visas, boat turnbacks, and the 2013 ban on boat arrivals ever being resettled in Australia.

These measures are defended as making the lives of refugees who do come worse in order to save the lives of others. There are extremely serious questions to be asked about whether that tradeoff is always worth it, given the grave harm some of these policies do for relatively small impacts on the number of boat arrivals. But those are the difficult questions for Australian refugee policy, ones that have divided refugee advocates and are very hard to give precise answers to.

The questions we are facing today are not difficult, because they have nothing to do with so-called pull-factors. The government presents this issue as if treating people on Manus and Nauru any better would restart the flow of boats, but there is really no reason to believe that at all. The 1200 people currently held in detention mostly arrived under a previous policy regime; importantly, at the time, refugee boats were not intercepted by the navy and turned back to their port of origin. That matters, because if you are an asylum seeker in Indonesia today deciding whether to get on a boat to Australia, the question of whether it's worthwhile is entirely answered by the current policy, and the fact that you will almost certainly just end up back in Indonesia. What happens to the people currently in detention really doesn't matter. And even if you think it does, of course, what you'll take from it as that making the journey will result in you being held in horrifying conditions for over four years and only then, and only possibly, being resettled somewhere else.

Bottom line: whatever you think about the idea of using some refugees to deter the arrival of others, Australia has already extracted every drop of deterrent value from the people in our offshore detention centres. There is really very little reason now not to resettle them in Australia, and no reason at all not to resettle them in the US, New Zealand, Canada, or anywhere else that might offer.

But the pull-factor logic, that we can't always offer the best treatment, on pain of risking more drownings, has morphed into a pathological insistence that if there's a way we can treat asylum seekers worse, then we have to take it. That's how our politicians have always been prepared to escalate our cruelty again. That's how we banned people who travelled to Australia from being settled here, and then banned people who didn't travel here as well - because the journey to Indonesia, too, is risky. That's how we insisted for several years that the only resettlement options were Cambodia and Papua New Guinea. That's how we can have a prime minister proudly declare that he will not "succumb to the cries of the human rights lawyers".

The government is now refusing a resettlement offer from New Zealand, on the grounds that the US deal is only viable because Donald Trump doesn't like it, so it's clear it won't be repeated. It's impossible to believe this - they obviously thought the deal was viable last year, when Barack Obama was president and Hillary Clinton a shoo-in, because that's when they signed it. But it's a perfect reflection of how a half-reasonable argument has been warped into a mantra for savagery: we can't do anything except be cruel, and if we do, we have to be clear we'll never do it again.

I don't know whether this is just an excuse, cynically deployed as cover for xenophobic politics, or whether policymakers have been so absorbed in the logic of deterrence for so long that they really believe it. Either way it's a defence for inhumanity that doesn't stand up to the slightest critical thought, and it's deeply sad that in Australian politics today such a glib assertion of righteousness is apparently an adequate defence for the torture and brutality we're inflicting every day.