Sixteen candles there on my wall and here am I the biggest fool of them all… Reviewing Academics for Refugees

Earlier in the week, a story emerged about how more than 2,000 academics were calling for a national summit on asylum seeker policy.  A summits is the ideas you propose when you don’t have any ideas to propose.  The Gillard Government commissioned an expert panel to advise on asylum seeker strategy, but when the panel came up with solutions that the non-experts didn’t like, the non-experts rejected the quality of the panel.  So this is the death spiral we’re in: if the experts don’t come up with the answers you want, find new experts.

And so we can see the futility in a call for a summit.  If the summit comes up with solutions that the advocates don’t want, the advocates won’t change their position an inch.  So the summit must come up with the answer that the advocates want, else it’s illegitimate.

What was a bit unusual this time was the accompaniment of the call for a summit with a policy paper.  Ordinarily, a policy paper is what you produce after you’ve consulted with the experts, not simultaneously with a call to consult all the experts.  Already, comments from the policy paper are circulating amongst advocacy groups, so we should ask ourselves the extent to which we think the policy paper is a useful contribution to the public debate.

There is a hazard that I’ll fall into correcting the facts of the paper, making this a hopelessly pedantic exercise.  Going through, line-by-line and checking the claims doesn’t help anybody given that we are operating in a post-fact political world.  For example, the policy paper makes the following claim:

Estimates show that it is 10 times more costly to hold a person in immigration detention than to allow them to live in the community while their claims are being processed. [p 4]

The reference is not to anything scholarly or authoritative, but to a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Australian government faces potential claims of more than $1 billion after Manus Island deal implodes‘.  First, the estimate that it’s 10 times more expensive is not made in that article.  Second, citing newspapers for anything other than ‘public opinion’ (very broadly construed) is barely better than citing Wikipedia.

Elsewhere in the paper, they make quite an astonishing claim:

It costs an estimated $8.80 to $38 per day to allow a person to live in community while their claims for asylum are processed (in contrast to $655 per day in immigration detention). [p 10]

The link here is to the International Detention Coalition, an advocacy group.  In their report, There Are Alternatives, they present a table that compares the costs of detention with the cost of ‘alternative’ (p 11).  Their $655 figure is based on the National Commission of Audit using 2013 figures where it says:

While the growth in expenditure is largely due to an increase in arrival rates, there has also been a material increase in costs associated with running the immigration detention network. For example, estimates of the annual cost of holding one IMA in onshore detention have increased from $179,000 in 2011-12 to $239,000 in 2013-14.

But the key word there is ‘onshore’.  The onshore cost of detention — from immigration detention centres through to community detention — went to $239k in 2013-14.

The International Detention Coalition compares this figure with the $8.80 per day for the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme and the $38 for the Community Care Pilot.  But neither of these are total costs for supporting asylum seekers in the community.

So the $8.80 per day didn’t include rent assistance, medical assistance, or other support also provided to asylum seekers on bridging visas.  In other words, it will always cost more than $8.80 per day.

Further, the $8.80 per day is pitiful and we should not accept it as being a reasonable amount.  To use this as a comparison is misleading.

The Community Care Pilot was a Howard Government initiative and, again, it wasn’t comprehensive of the full costs and, again, it was underfunded.

This is one of the many problems with asylum seeker policy discussion.  Unless you had the time and expertise to check the sources of the striking claims, you’d happily agree with the academics that it’s ten times more costly.

But it’s also pointless to correct this error (and many other errors) because the factual aspect of the paper really isn’t important.  Even if offshore detention were cheaper than onshore detention, the Academics for Refugees would still want offshore processing shut down.  Even if offshore processing were an effective deterrent, they would still want offshore processing shut down.  Even if health outcomes were better, they would still want offshore processing shut down.  None of the loudest people in the debate actually care about the facts.

And so we have to critique the policy paper from the other angle: to what extent is it a good policy paper?  The answer is: it’s not.

At no point does the policy paper address any of the issues that underpin asylum seeker policy.  The result is an internally incoherent policy platform, calling both for offshore processing and for its abolition.

Asylum seeker policy is about Australia’s role in addressing a global problem.  There are more than 63 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, with 34 thousand displaced each day.  The current wait for a person in a refugee camp is upwards of 15 years.  The average wait for a person who can make it directly to a resettlement country is 5 years.

Put bluntly, Academics for Refugees are calling on the Australian government to prioritise the claims of people who currently wait 5 years at the expense of people who are waiting 15 years.

They claim that we should abolish offshore processing and process anybody who makes it to Australian waters onshore and in the community.  They call for the end of mandatory detention and an end to detention centres, meaning we will not be able to do health and security checks.  And they call for asylum seekers to be given work rights and healthcare rights.

But they also call for regional processes.  So if you are an asylum seeker in Thailand and you know that you could either make yourself known to authorities in Thailand for assessing your claim or you could continue to move through irregular migration pathways to Australia, which would you do?  Asylum seekers are not stupid, they would opt for the pathway that maximises both their opportunities for resettlement (access to Australian courts is much better than access to Thai courts) and the quality of that resettlement (why work in Thailand when you could earn more in Australia?  Why get healthcare in Thailand when you could better in Australia?).

Their proposal is incoherent.  And it’s incoherent because they haven’t understood what the issue is that asylum seeker policy is supposed to solve.

If they had understood the issue, they could have written a policy paper calling for an end to all the superfluous and deleterious aspects of the policy (turn-backs) much more effectively.  If they had understood the issue, they could have written a policy paper calling for improvements in the standards of care when implementing the policy (access to health facilities for asylum seekers in the region) much more effectively.

So this is again a wasted opportunity.


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