False Refugees and Misplaced Compassion

Morality figures prominently in the debate about refugees, unauthorised arrivals and detention; so does compassion. Both terms have been appropriated as if by right by those who are opposed to the federal government's policies  but it is not at all clear that they have got the issues or the morality right. There is in fact no argument about the right of refugees as defined in the 1951 convention to arrive without authorisation and claim asylum in the first country at which they arrive. Few such people actually arrive in Australia and claim asylum. Our boatpeople are constituted of two main groups  those who have a genuine claim for asylum and should according to the convention have sought it in the first possible country, but who have preferred to try to move on to Australia where they think the prospects are better, and those who have no genuine claim at all but who are determined to seek a better life in Australia than they anticipated in their countries of origin. Both groups of people are clearly much worse off than most of us.

Both groups have a claim on our compassion. That is why so many people are impatient with the distinctions drawn between their claims. But as so often in complicated matters, it may be the case that compassion (which often enough is mere sentimentality) is not enough unless it is properly directed. Is the compassion being offered unauthorised arrivals who were never persecuted in their countries of origin any good to them, and in particular to those whom they have left behind? Might it be better to discourage such arrivals in order to make the countries from which they come better off, and so set in train a longterm solution to the problem of economic migration? What is clear is that those who avail themselves of the people smugglers are those who are able to mobilise considerable amounts of capital (in terms of their country of origin), who are better educated than others, and who have skills and motivation well above average. If we welcome and encourage such people to come to Australia, or anywhere else, are we not depriving the origin country of the talent and capital which is necessary if they are to improve their own lot? In the case of genuine refugees there is no such conflict of interest. Their country of origin has decided it simply does not want to allow them to employ their talents freely. But the economic migrants have decided that for purely selfish reasons they want to take their capital and talents elsewhere.

The real issue is whether it is either moral or compassionate for wealthy countries to encourage such transfers. Are we doing poor countries a favour when we take advantage of the investments they have made in their people by creaming off the best of them? For example, when we go out to recruit nurses from poor countries (as Britain is doing on a substantial scale) the danger is that we are going to actually harm the health levels of those countries, as well as discouraging them from further training of nurses, which they only expect to lose. Equally when Australia boasts proudly of the high proportion of skilled migrants in our migrant intake we are really boasting about how successful we are at creaming off the talent of the Third World. In other words, emigration is inimical to the solution of poverty in such countries. We would do better to spend more on promoting education and training in those countries without taking the cream of the crop. Similarly, when we train students from poor countries in Australia, to allow them to stay on after graduation amounts to the same thing  while we spend the money, it is in no way beneficial to the country of origin of the student. It is true that some of these countries can benefit from remittances from migrants to their families; but most such migrants are determined that their families should follow them.

The more compassionately we treat illegal arrivals who are purely economic migrants the more harm we do to their countries of origin, and the more we help perpetuate the poverty at source. Rather than being compassionate to a few who are willing to bribe and lie their way into Australia, genuine compassion must involve a refusal to allow them to steal their talents and their capital from their home countries.

There is a tension here, of course, with the desirability of allowing free movement around the world to those who wish to seek opportunities elsewhere. One would not wish the traditional freedom of movement between the labour markets of New Zealand and Australia to disappear, for example. Nor is it permissible to resort to restraint on the departure of those who do not want to live under a particular regime to the extent of imprisoning them behind the borders, in the fashion of the now defunct East German regime. The East Germans however were when they resorted to the obscene solution of The Wall facing a real problem: the haemorrhaging of their skilled talent and labour to the West. The problem was partly of their own making (as the problems of socialist regimes usually are), but also sprang from the pillaging of what remained of the East German economy after the war by its Soviet masters and the irresistible magnet of a rapidly recovering West German economy. This was the result of hard work, good policy and US assistance. But it is difficult to argue that while people should be able to move wherever they wish when there is a welcoming country to receive them, poor countries should do nothing about such a "brain drain". There is a lot of sense in imposing reciprocal obligations on individuals who benefit from state expenditure on their education and training when this goes beyond the standard schooling which any society should provide as a matter of course.

In the United States there is no problem, since that country is itself a magnet for the graduates of the rest of the world  its own graduates move elsewhere frequently, but the economic loss to the US is trivial. Moreover the US has a system in which much training is paid for by the trainee. But poorer countries where post-school training is mainly public sector (often, as in Australia, for ideological reasons which make no sense) may legitimately demand some obligation on the part of the recipient of training, whether through a mechanism like the Higher Education Contribution Scheme or some kind of bond system which used to be common for teacher-trainees. We have reached a level of wealth at which this is not really necessary or desirable  it is possible, for example, to evade the HECS repayment obligation by moving to work in another country, but noone would seriously require such payment as a condition of receiving a passport. However it is not so many years ago when it was perfectly normal to be required to satisfy the authorities of the discharge of any such obligations, as well as payment of any outstanding taxation debts, before overseas travel was possible. It is equally quite reasonable for a really poor country today to impose some obligation on its citizens who have received expensive training and education provided this does not amount to a prohibitive burden on freedom of movement across borders.

In fact the states which might contemplate such controls are usually not strong enough to do so, or  are indifferent to the problem. Perhaps they have simply not conflated the issues of capital outflow in the financial sense and human capital outflow. This situation requires some moral judgement on the part of a wealthy country like Australia which proposes to welcome economic immigrants. The easier we make it for those with capital enough to pay people smugglers to achieve their destinations the more we strip talent from the countries of origin. In a sense, any aid we give those countries (apart from that large part of it which as usual falls into the hands of corrupt officials and dictators) is more than recouped in the form of the human capital we attract away from them.

The reductio ad absurdum of the open borders policy proposed by the more extreme and irresponsible of the compassion-peddlers is a huge movement of capital and talent from poor countries to rich countries. The result would be a fall in living standards at both ends: in the countries of origin because of the drain, and in the country of destination because of the increased competition and oversupply in the labour market. (That is of course behind the thinking of many business advocates of high rates of immigration.)

But of course there are far more moderate proposals which involve lifting both the immigration intake and the numbers and proportion of genuine refugees within that. While Australia has had a good experience of immigration, the moral problems just referred to remain. It is understandable that the government should argue that we have a high overall quality of immigrants, and that there is a net economic benefit (other than the dubious benefits of population growth), but when these migrants come from poor countries the benefit is all on our side. Hardly a moral position. The social benefits of immigration have in the past been considerable, also; but it is not improper to point, as Professor Geoffrey Blainey did back in 1984 when he was abused and vilified for his pains, to possible social strains. This is especially the case when immigrants are aggressively unassimilable. Assimilation itself is not the issue. Orthodox Jews, for example, insist on their own customs and strongly resist assimilation. But they do not insist that the broader society should conform to their demands, and they are rarely lawbreakers. They live apart in many aspects of their lives, and are perfectly content to let others live as they wish, without proselytising. But the social strains of immigration are often those of conflict between communities. These conflicts should be anticipated by governments and other bodies concerned, but they rarely are foreseen, let alone managed and minimised. By contrast, there is an unwillingness to even admit or debate such problems. Moreover the most vocal supporters of high rates of immigration rarely are themselves directly affected by the immediate social impacts of new migrants. If the inhabitants of the Woomera detention centre were to be temporarily housed in, say, Sydney's Inner West Callan Park (at present subject to a land rights claim from the bourgeois Left) and permitted to move freely in the community the tune might be a little different.

There is undoubtedly a moral argument that we should accept more genuine refugees, even if the overall immigration rate stays at its current level (which has been lifted by the Howard government). There is an even stronger argument that such refugees should be the main element in our immigration intake  these are certainly the people in most need. Other immigrants should be chiefly accepted on the basis of family reunion (immediate, not extended, family) and genuine marriage to an Australian citizen; otherwise residence should be available to those who have professional reasons (scientists, academics, journalists, etc) to move from country to country and occasionally put down roots. To make bona fide refugees the main component of our immigration intake would involve far more genuine compassion than the policies of the compassion-peddlers; it would also be of less clear immediate economic benefit, and would need defending on grounds other than the government's spurious benefits argument. It would certainly be more costly in the short term.

One of the great achievements of the government's firm stance on border controls, which has in general been effective and humane (lying propaganda to the contrary), is that it has made higher immigration rates more acceptable to the community. This is why the government has had no hesitation in lifting the targets for those who will be accepted through the proper channels. But this should create the possibility of lifting the acceptance rate of refugees (not economic migrants employing people smugglers). The community is and always has been open to persuasion on honest moral grounds; at the same time it is perfectly entitled to ask for some assurance that national borders and internal security are being adequately policed. When that is assured, we can afford to shift our immigration policy away from the importation of skills which our education system ought already to be delivering adequately to our own people, and towards a higher intake of refugees who can be offered education and training as well as refuge.

To achieve this transition the system of compulsory detention of unauthorised arrivals is essential. Of course it is far from perfect, and ought to be improved. But it is simply not true that Woomera, for instance, is in effect a place of torture and deprivation. The testimony of those who work there, and those who have approached the issues without preconceived intentions of discrediting the system of detention, has shown that. The troubles of Woomera seem to derive chiefly from the fact that most of those at present detained there have had their claims to asylum properly investigated and rejected. This procedure has in many cases been prolonged because of the policy of so many arrivals of deliberately destroying any documentation which might help to confirm their claims. Discontent amongst the vast majority of detainees who have been rejected springs from the understandable displeasure they feel at knowing that their time and money has been wasted or stolen from them by the criminals whose services they employed in the attempt to enter and remain in Australia without permission.

The compassion and humanity of those who are concerned with the unauthorised non-refugee arrivals would be better directed towards improving the system of detention, especially as it affects children, rather than simply manufacturing propaganda against the government or promoting cynical stunts and escapes from lawful detention.

P.P. McGuinness . Quadrant editorial . October 2002

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