Fact Check: What did @BobJCarr actually say about ‘economic migrants’? #auspol #asylumseekers

Senator the Hon Bob Carr
Senator the Hon Bob Carr (Photo credit: ACIAR Australia)

There is a weird public debate raging in Australia where everybody on Twitter seems to think that they can intuit facts about the asylum seeker issue.  The origin of the latest round of Ouija Board Policy Making was inspired by Bob Carr’s appearance on Lateline.

Here’s what he said:

TONY JONES: Alright. Yes, that’s what you’ve – that’s the point you’ve made. I want to just quickly go to what Kevin Rudd might be able to do to change the national conversation on policy. I mean, could he, for example, change asylum seeker policy dramatically? Could he do what Tony Abbott is promising to do: turn back the boats or stop the boats?

BOB CARR: Well I said in the Labor caucus this week: we’ve got to recognise – and the people who’ve expressed noble sentiments on refugee rights have got to recognise that under our noses, the nature of this problem has changed. The people coming here by irregular means, irregular maritime arrivals, in the language of the bureaucracy, are being brought here by people smugglers – all of them, being brought here as part of a criminal commercial organisation. Second change: they’re not people fleeing persecution. They’re coming from majority religious or ethnic groups in the countries their fleeing, they’re coming here as economic migrants. And the third: there is an unsustainable spike in their numbers. It’s not the old days where their number were so few, a person with noble instincts could say let them just slide into the population.

TONY JONES: Do some mathematics here. If they’re economic migrants, why do nine out of 10 of them pretty much get accepted as genuine refugees? Are you saying we’ve got that wrong?

BOB CARR: Yeah, we’ve reached the view that as a result of court and tribunal decisions, it’s coming up wrong. We need a tougher, more hard-edged assessment. And again I say to those Australians who believe this country ought to distinguish itself by its decency to refugees, the problem in front of us measurably has changed. It is people smuggling, it is people coming here as economic migrants, it is people coming here in numbers that will push aside our generous humanitarian intake as part of our regular migration program. [Source]

So the nature of the problem has changed and, according to Carr, we are seeing an increase in economic migration.  Tony Jones then asks a stupid question: If they’re economic migrants, why do nine out of 10 asylum seekers get accepted as refugees?  But that’s a non sequitur.  The ‘nine out of 10’ statistic refers to past intakes and not the current intake.

Carr should have clarified what he meant.  Instead, he says something a bit weird: the court and tribunal decisions are coming up wrong.  That’s an entirely different debate from the composition of the current intake.  The question of courts and tribunals is extremely complicated, as I’ve argued before.

Do people move irregularly for economic reasons?  Yes.  Do people go to extreme lengths to move for economic reasons?  Yes.

Meanwhile, you have nonsense statements from the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre that:

Also worthy of consideration is that the long and perilous journey to Australia is in its self is the best filter for selecting the most desperate and worthy asylum seekers. The final protection visa grant rate is a reflection of the fact that only the most desperate are willing to take the huge risk of boarding a boat to Australia. [Source]

Not only is it false globally (as the Global RCP meeting shows all too well)  but it’s also false locally.  The huge risk of boarding a boat to Australia shows that a person is a refugee?  Then why do Illegal Foreign Fishers get in boats to come to Australia?

Meanwhile, back to Carr.  On Monday night’s Q&A, Tony Jones (the same person who conducted the above interview):

[Bob Carr] says that 100% of recent arrivals are economic migrants and the tribunal system is broken.  Is he right?  Is he wrong? [Source]

But that’s not what Minister Carr said.

It seems weird that, in the so-called ‘information age’, this journalist-driven nonsense flourishes so easily.

Quick post: The Baffling Rhetoric of Asylum Seeker Debates #auspol

Soon, I’ll have some breathing time!  In the interim:

I often get exasperated at the inanity of the asylum seeker conversation in Australia.  It’s vicious and irrational — from both ‘sides’ of the political divide.  Every time I think the conversation couldn’t get worse, it does.

A Sri Lankan asylum seeker living in ‘community detention’ has been charged with the sexual assault of a university student.  In response, the Coalition called for communities and the police to be informed about asylum seekers living in the community and the imposition of ‘behaviour protocols’ (whatever they might be).

In response to the Coalition, the Left went generally nuts.  ‘Dog-whistling’ was mentioned.  ‘Xenophobia’ was also uttered.

But for all the shouting in unison, nobody has engaged with the substantive policy questions lurking patiently beneath the surface (like Elder Gods in the Cthulhu mythos).

Why don’t people know that asylum seekers are living in their community?  The position assumed by both the sides of the shouting match is that people would be outraged to learn that asylum seekers are living next door.  In the case of the Coalition, the community needs to be informed because they would be outraged at this infiltration.  In the case of the Left, the community shouldn’t be informed because the asylum seekers need to be protected from a community that would be outraged.

There is a very weird hypocrisy here.  The Coalition — when in power — didn’t want the media anywhere near detention centres (and for good reason, but that’s a longer discussion).  The Left has continued to argue that information, like spice, must flow and that the government shouldn’t hide information from the community.  Now, we have the opposite assertions.  The Coalition wants public accountability; the Left wants secrecy.

This was the perfect opportunity for the Left to take some leadership on the issue: Yes, the community and the police should be informed that asylum seekers are living in the community because this is a good thing which ought to be celebrated.  Instead, they let the narrative of ‘evil, spooky, threatening boat people’ take more ground.

Instead, we have the situation where the Greens look unnervingly like they’re not on the side of the community.  The community should be expected to accommodate asylum seekers without their knowledge and whether they want to or not, they say.

Although the expression from the radio clowns and the usual illiterates has been poor, it has expressed a real problem which we need to examine: what is the balance between communities consenting (even vetoing) about its constitution and the desire of asylum seekers to be housed in the community?  Humanitarian ‘obligations’ are something we as a community have undertaken voluntarily, but the rhetoric is increasingly shifting away from that understanding.  This rhetoric doesn’t see the problem as a competition of different ‘rights’ where the needs of various groups have to be balanced; it instead views it as declaring one group the unimpeachable winner where that group gets its way and everybody else can get stuffed.

On one final point: why are we putting asylum seekers in communities where they will face hostility from the community?  Cynically, I wonder if this is because wealthier areas (that is, areas with higher property prices) are more likely to be supportive of asylum seekers.  Thus, an affordable community detention program means placing them next door to the people who are less likely to be supportive.

More importantly, this fear of community hostility must surely be a tacit admission that the Left’s message on asylum seekers is not persuasive.  The community wasn’t exactly jumping over itself to respond: ‘Wait!  We want to know if asylum seekers are living in the community because it makes us feel good to do a good thing for the most vulnerable people in the global community!’

My memory is hazy, we’re moving away… Ideology and #refugees in #auspol

When it comes to asylum seekers and refugee policy, I just don’t know.

On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine a more vulnerable group of people than asylum seekers.  On the other hand, are those who arrive by boat more entitled to have their protection claims assessed than those who are waiting in refugee camps?  On the other other hand, are those in competition?  Why do we subtract those who come by boat from those we take from overseas?

I just don’t know.

What I do know is that we are still not having a rational debate about asylum seeker policy.  We have two sides of this ‘debate’ who are flatly disinterested in recognising the merest possibility that any disagreement could be the product of rational thought.

On the one hand, we have hate-mongers.  We have people who live in utter flood of Muslims descending into Australia, like a giant red arrow in a Liberal Party advert.  We have people who just worry about losing control of their privileged state.

On the other hand, we have people who will never be satisfied whatever the government does.  We have groups who exist for the sole purpose of complaining that the government is evil and inhumane towards the vulnerable.  We have people who cynically play on the word ‘detention‘, causing confused debates about children being in detention centres.

On yet another hand, we have people who think temporary protection visas and offshore detention centres deter people fleeing for their safety, because push factors don’t exist.  On a different hand entirely, we have people who think that if you can make it to Australia, you should be automatically granted a visa after fourteen days (unless you admit to being a security or health risk), because pull factors don’t exist.

In short, we have a lot of hands all of which are clutching at the same scarce fact-straws.

Nearly every week, Q&A discusses asylum seekers.  For the eleventy dozen weeks the show has been on air, nobody’s really said anything significant to change the debate.  Why?  Because people are far too interested in the sound of their own opinions in the air and aren’t at all interested in what anybody else has to say.

It’s not even a problem unique the the asylum seeker debate.  From carbon taxes to water management, people are only interested in voicing their own opinions rather than engaging in serious, critical, analytical discussion of another person.  To do so would be to admit that they were capable of stringing a coherent thought together.

It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, if Howard’s asylum seeker policy stopped the boats and he thought his policies were working, why did he blow millions of dollars constructing the Christmas Island Detention Centre?’

It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, why do so many people accept the views of activists uncritically?  Don’t activists have an interest in keeping the public outraged at all times?’

It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, why do so many asylum seekers need to resort to people smugglers in order to get refugee status?  Shouldn’t the international community be emptying the refugee camps as quickly as possible?’

It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, why should people smugglers determine Australia’s humanitarian intake?  Shouldn’t Australia be able to determine its own humanitarian intake?’

There’s nothing flatly irrational about any of the above questions.  Nobody asks them because they acknowledge a fabled Middle Ground where complex policy issues aren’t all black and white, where there aren’t goodies and baddies, where positions can’t be summed up in three-word slogans or in slacktivist e-mail campaigns.

For those who want to have a serious debate about these things, read the Centre for Policy Development’s A New Approach. I don’t agree with everything that they say (and I worry that there’s very little input from a conservative perspective), but at least I have to think about why I disagree.  It’s nuanced positions like the CPD’s — and not the clanging of the ideologues — that will eventually put these issues to rest.  People should either engage in serious debate and discussion, or pipe down.