On why the ‘Refugee Leaderboard’ fact checks are stupid and nonsensical

One group of people claim that Australia is really good at accepting refugees.  Another group of people claim that we are really bad at accepting refugees.  Who’s right?  Who’s wrong?  Let’s get every single news outlet to do it’s own ‘analysis’.

This is where we need public intellectuals, people who can guide public discussion and help the public to develop the language to discuss political debates.  If we leave it up to the Professors of Everythingology in Australia’s commentariat, we are going to get the second rate garbage that results in erroneous ‘explainers’.

Let’s go through this slowly.

What exactly are we trying to establish?  The claim appears to be that Australia can take very few Syrian refugees because Australia is already so generous.  That generosity is proven by statistics that show Australia is high up on the leaderboard of accepting refugees.

This is a stupid argument.  No matter how many refugees we accept, there is clearly an international crisis and Australia needs to play its role.  All the major parties have declared that they want to set capped limits on how many Syrians they want to accept, but this just increases the likelihood that large numbers of people will miss out on resettlement.  Instead of having each country act unilaterally on its solution, we need regional cooperation frameworks to engage.

But instead of making that point to refute the obnoxious claim, various news outlets and ideological advocacy groups have been challenging the accuracy of the claim.  This is probably more stupid that the original argument (somewhat establishing my law that every political action causes a more stupid reaction which is itself a political action).

Here’s how The Guardian (disclosure: who has published me on asylum seekers before) tackled the issue:

Tony Abbott, on 6 September, 2015: “We are a country which, on a per capita basis, takes more refugees than any other. We take more refugees than any other through the UNHCR on a per capita basis.”

The first sentence is not true. The second is, but it represents a tiny fraction of the world’s response to the refugee crisis. [Source]

There’s actually no way for the first sentence to be true and the second false.  Abbott clearly means the second sentence to clarify what he meant by the first.  The word ‘take’ here means ‘to accept voluntarily through the UNHCR process’.

Instead, Ben Doherty and Nick Evershed used an uncharitable interpretation of the first sentence.  By ‘take’, Abbott meant ‘host’, meaning ‘has within its national boundaries the most number of people who are refugees’.  On this measure, the top countries are Turkey, Pakistan, and Lebanon.  This is an absurd measure if you have drunk the Kool-Aid of ‘The Refugee Leaderboard is an Indicator of Moral Goodness’ because these three countries have utterly no say in the matter.  Why are they leading?  Because they have porous borders which they share with ‘source’ countries.

This measure goes on ‘Australia only hosts 35,000 refugees’.  This should wave flags that something’s wrong with the measure.  Over 700,000 refugees have been resettled in Australia since 1945.  Between 2000 and 2010, Australia resettled an average of about 13,000 refugees per year.  This shows that the measure being used is borked, but the article doesn’t link to the source of the data.  At some point, a person who is resettled in Australia has ceased to be a ‘refugee’ but it is not clear when.  It might be upon citizenship (as that would stop them from meeting the definition under Article 1), but who knows.

And this points to the fundamental problem with the ‘leaderboard’: you get radically different results depending on how you use the data.

Perhaps the most bizarre example of this was the Refugee Council of Australia’s attempt.  The first clue that it’s the handiwork of Broekns is the eye-destroying formatting of the text:

According to UNHCR statistics, in the 2014 calendar year (rather than the financial year), Australia recognised 2,780 asylum seekers as refugees. This was 0.09% of the global total, leaving Australia ranked 37th overall, 46th on a per capita basis and 62nd relative to total national GDP. In refugee resettlement, Australia did much better. The arrival of 11,750 resettled refugees to Australia during 2014 accounted for 11.0% of the global total (third overall and first on a per capita basis and relative to total national GDP). In 2014, only 0.7% of UNHCR-mandated refugees were resettled.

The fairest comparison is to look at how the refugee recognition and resettlement within Australia’s total Refugee and Humanitarian Program compares on a global basis. By this measure, the 14,350 refugees recognised or resettled in Australia during 2014 made up 0.43% of the global total, with Australia ranked 22nd overall, 27thon a per capita basis and 46th relative to  total national GDP.

Bold and underline.

None of these numbers makes sense.  Is the first 37th a measure based on the raw number (2,780), meaning that there were 36 countries who resettled a larger number of… refugees, or asylum seekers?  But what’s the word ‘recognised’ doing there?  Is this saying that Australia did the processing for 2,780 refugees and that 36 countries did more?

Words mean things.  Although I disparage the quest to find ‘neutral’ language, I am pathologically insistent upon precise language.  A word should mean the same thing from the start to the end unless it is for literary effect.  And it should be clear precisely what’s being said.  Here, the Refugee Council have minced words so much that you can’t really be sure what it’s claiming.  Even value-laden phrases like ‘fairest comparison’ (according to whom?) make it hard to assess what’s being claimed.

And the problem is that the public at large accepts these statements uncritically.  Today, I (stupidly, so stupidly) thought that I’d speak to a well known asylum seeker advocate on Twitter.  This person made a fairly stupid claim that gets repeated regularly (a basic error arising from the is-ought fallacy) and I noted that the argument was stupid.  After wading through a torrent of increasingly bizarre claims from the advocate, she ended the conversation with a First Dog on the Moon drawing and an onlooker claimed that my argument was that the advocate was a woman and therefore incapable of rational argument… or something.

This is the charged environment in which we are operating.  People with absolutely no knowledge of the policy discussions feel like they should be able to intuit facts about complex problems.  It’s Pixie Dust Policy: if you just care enough, if you’re compassionate enough, the answers will be obvious.

But make no mistake: the forces of ‘good’ are losing the public discussion and they have no influence in the political discussion.  No matter how many times we’ve chanted ‘Seeking asylum is not illegal’, we still see people responding ‘It should be.’  There is no pressure on the government to improve the standards of immigration detention facilities because their opponents have played a zero-sum game: ‘We don’t support improvements; we only support their disestablishment.’  And political parties can get elected on little more than a ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan.

The advocates have lost.

The ‘leaderboard’ analyses show that, as a society, we are incapable of even getting close to a productive discussion.  One group makes a claim and a thousand blogs and columns respond with ‘fact checks’ that get the details wrong, or which fundamentally misjudge the claim.  Nobody needed to ‘fact check’ the claim that we were first; we needed people saying loudly that the claim just didn’t matter.  Even if it was accurate, we still need to take more refugees and treat asylum seekers better.

We need public intellectuals capable of improving the quality of the discussion.  We need people who can do the difficult job of saying: ‘Even if all of the assertions from my opponents are accurate, they are still wrong.’

Until we get that, we’ll continue to get parties demonising the vulnerable for cheap electoral victories.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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