Ben Lewis. The false advertising of mandatory detention and “Stopping the Boats”

Sep 4, 2014

Spend any amount of time listening to Australian policy makers or reading Australian media and you’re certain to hear a familiar phrase: “Stop the Boats”. It has become such a political imperative within the Australian asylum seeker debate that “Stop the Boats” is rarely even challenged.  But putting aside the question of whether Australia should (or even can) “Stop the Boats”, there is a fundamental flaw in the logic . . . the key policy which underpins the “Stop the Boats” thinking—namely mandatory detention—has been shown to be false advertising.

The truth is that there is no empirical evidence to suggest that harsh immigration policies such as mandatory detention deter irregular migration. That’s because, when it comes to human migration, countries by and large don’t have control over who leaves a territory or to where they are headed. Empirical research for decades has shown that immigration policies are predominantly responsive to, not determinative of human movement.

According to a 2011 study conducted by UNHCR’s chief detention researcher, Alice Edwards:

Pragmatically, there is no empirical evidence that the prospect of being detained deters irregular migration, or discourages persons from seeking asylum. In fact, as the detention of migrants and asylum-seekers has increased in a number of countries, the number of individuals seeking to enter such territories has also risen, or has remained constant.” 

For example, over the past three decades, many Europe countries have significantly expanded their use of detention in response to irregular asylum seeker and migrant arrivals.  The result?  European migration figures have increased from an estimated 49 million in 1990 to 58 million in 2000 to 70 million in 2010. The same can be shown in the United States. Despite decades of “tough on immigration” policies, including annual detention figures approaching half a million, and a Congressional “bed mandate” requiring 34,000 migrants to be in detention every single day, the period from 2000-2010 was “a record setting decade of immigration” in the United States.

Detention policies don’t deter. So why then do Australian policy makers stubbornly cling to the assertion that mandatory detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants isn’t simply good policy, but is actually necessary to curb irregular migration when it’s clear the facts don’t support it?

Part of the blame undoubtedly lies with the Australian public. The Australian policy of mandatory detention—roundly criticized outside of Australia—remains overwhelmingly popular within. Even as recently as last week, Australian Immigration Minister Scott Morrison defended the practice of detaining asylum seeking children using the staid “stop the boats” rhetoric, and with the legitimacy of broad public support for the country’s mandatory detention policy.

Part of the blame also lies with Australian policy makers for continuing to use anecdotal rather than empirical evidence to justify the mandatory detention policy. As the editor of this blog has rightly pointed out, this is “sloppy policy evaluation” at best. Experts are in agreement that mandatory detention policies have no measurable impact on the number of irregularly arriving asylum seekers and migrants. There are a number of common sense—and empirically established—reasons for this.  According to Robyn Sampson, a leading researcher from Swinburne University:

Several studies have been undertaken to establish which factors most impact the choice of destination of asylum seekers and refugees and irregular migrants.  According to this body of research, the principal aim of asylum seekers and irregular migrants is to reach a place of safety. Asylum seekers and irregular migrants often have very limited understanding of the migration policies of destination countries before arrival and rely on people smugglers to choose their destination. Rather than being influenced primarily by immigration policies such as detention, most refugees and irregular migrants choose destinations where they will be reunited with family or friends; where they believe they will be in a safe, tolerant and democratic society; where there are historical links between their country and the destination country; where they can already speak the language of the destination country; or where they believe they will be able to find secure work quickly due to a perception of the country as one of wealth and prosperity.” 

So to recap—the principle determinants of the choice of destination country for asylum seekers and irregular migrants are:

  1. Safety;
  2. Family;
  3. Perceptions of democracy;
  4. Historical links;
  5. Common language; and
  6. Perceptions of wealth/prosperity. 

Most migrants, it turns out, are just the same as you and I.  They want to go to the nearest safe place where they can be together with their families and not be persecuted—bonus points for a common language, culture, or job opportunities. A policy of mandatory detention fails to address any of these; it merely punishes those who arrive in the false belief that if asylum seekers and irregular migrants are punished badly enough, they’ll simply stop coming.

To an outsider, the irrationality of the mandatory detention policy would be comical if not for all of the pain and suffering it is causing. You may be able to “Stop the Boats” by physically restraining asylum seeking children and families before they reach you, but you certainly won’t deter future arrivals by punishing them once they get here. And why would you want to—especially when the overwhelming majority have been shown to be legitimate refugees, fleeing for their lives? (By the government’s own statistics, since 2008, 92% of all asylum seekers arriving by boat have been granted refugee status.)

What are needed are not more “tough” immigration policies, but comprehensive regional solutions that attempt to address the root causes of insecurity that prompt human movement. The good news is that better policies do exist; policies that can be supported by empirical evidence and that respect international human rights obligations. But one thing is clear: better policy making won’t be built on the continued justification of mandatory detention as a deterrent. Detention as a deterrent is just false advertising.

Ben Lewis is the Advocacy Coordinator of the International Detention Coalition (IDC). He is an international human rights lawyer with extensive advocacy experience working with irregular migrant populations in the US and Latin America. The views in this blog are his own.

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