Quick Post: Is refusing to resettle refugees in New Zealand cruel?

An argument has been floating around for a fortnight or so: the Australian Government has reached a new level of cruelty by refusing to take up a request from the New Zealand Government to resettle refugees currently on Nauru there.  Lots of chest-thumping and posturing, but not much analysis.

The lack of analysis is probably ascribable to the sorts of people occupying space in the public policy discussion.  The people who are very vocal are asylum seeker advocates who are hellbent on denouncing everything the Government does as a sin against both God and Man.  Most of them are trolls and should be ignored.

People in favour of the Government’s policies tend to be awful people.  Usually racists who express all kinds of batshit terrible opinions.  So constructing the policy discussion usually involves having the Government on one side and the bleeding hearts on the other.  Not much of a discussion.

The outcry about not resettling people in New Zealand shows how thin the public’s understanding of the issues is.

The purpose of both the ALP and the Coalition’s asylum seeker policies are to have a regional resettlement program so that a greater number of the world’s refugees can be protected.  How they will achieve this differs wildly — the Coalition involves a number of aspects which are contrary to the stated policy (such as turning back boats and deterrence comics).

One of the more complex aspects of the policy is one of its most beautiful: how do you remove the incentive for asylum seekers to resort to clandestine migration pathways through the Southeast Asian region?

It is widely acknowledged that the sooner a migrant regularises their pathway, the better off the migrant will be.  They get a bunch of protections under a country’s legal system, they get access to labour markets, &c., &c., &c.  I’m philosophically opposed to making asylum seekers work, by the way, but I know I’m in the minority on that subject.  One part of the puzzle is how to universalise the privileges of an asylum seeker once they make themselves known to authorities.  Back to access to the labour market: some countries make it easy for asylum seekers to work; others force them on to the illegal worker market.

Here’s where it gets crunchy.  If an asylum seeker perceives that they will get better treatment if they remain undetected in the country they’re currently occupying, then they’ll do their best to remain undetected.  This is because asylum seekers are rational human beings.  If the country next door offers free health care for asylum seekers, but this country doesn’t, they will try to make it to the next country.

Part of the resettlement program is about taking away the advantage of remaining undetected on the pathway to Australia.  The Malaysia Solution was really clever in that respect: a person in Malaysia could either continue the pathway to Australia undetected but, if they did, they would just end up back in Malaysia.  Therefore, they were better off making themselves known to the local authorities.

Resettling from Nauru to New Zealand creates an incentive for asylum seekers to remain undetected until they get to Australia.  They can either remain in, say, Malaysia where they get the level of treatment available in Malaysia, or they can try to make it to Australia where they will have a chance to be resettled in New Zealand.

In other words, it makes absolutely no sense as part of a regional resettlement programme to take New Zealand up on its offer if it encourages clandestine migration.

Author: Mark Fletcher

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

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