KEVIN BAIN. New thinking needed on refugee policy for a new period (Part 1 of 2)

Both Robert Manne and John Menadue have recently put proposals at this blog for better refugee policy. As an amateur who has accumulated an awareness of the counter-intuitions, swirling dynamics  and deep knowledge required in this fiendishly complex policy space, I have no detailed prescriptions of my own other than “first, do no harm”. But the European events and an imminent Australian election suggest an urgency for advocates to review their  orthodoxies and adapt to new realities.  There’s not much public conversation and it needs to happen. 

The new realities include the lessons of Europe and its effect on Australia, a predicted increase in refugees seeking protection in our region in the near future,  the nature of Australian populism and how to reach those influenced by it, the failure of social “influencers” and sympathetic elite opinion to change Australian refugee policy and, what is least discussed, the adequacy of existing refugee infrastructure of institutions, processes and objectives to deliver what they deserve to get. (More on this last point in Part 2, when I pass on the insights of the book “Refuge – transforming a broken refugee system” by A Betts and P Collier.)

The alarming collapse of refugee support at the European political and popular level suggests we start now to think, plan and communicate, not watch and wait. Despite anti-refugee sentiment, it was encouraging to see from recent Pew research that a majority in most European countries still supports taking in people fleeing war and violence, so there is a basis to regain support. In fact, the most extreme attitudes shown in the poll were of rejection of the EU’s bungling management of the issue.

But in a doubling down response, resurgent European nativism – anti Islam, anti immigrant, anti refugee behaviour and policy – is now at the top levels of government, with the Italians pressuring Panama to de-license the last private rescue ship in the Mediterranean, Aquila2. In effect, private individuals will be prohibited from preventing avoidable deaths at sea, with confinement of refugees in dangerous Libyan hellholes a secondary result. Yet the polls say that strident Italian leader Matteo Salvini is not expressing the Italian people’s view, who feel let down by government and globalisation, including open borders, with little animus towards the migrants.

What I take from this is that the European results show positive average opinion is not enough to get results, and also that the divisive and nasty behaviour can come from above not below, hijacked by unrepresentative interests, similar to what we saw from PM Turnbull’s time in office.

The refugee issue will continue to be prominent in Australian politics, not least because the enormity of the injustice means loud advocacy will continue. But as well as the bleak outlook for the island prisoners, global and local instability within conflicted states and regions seems likely. The UNHCR predicts rising levels of dislocation over the next decade, with authoritarian government in most of Asia and ongoing harassment (or worse) of minorities. This could escalate to “forced emigration” in the near future. eg. by Uigurs in China, Vietnamese Catholics, Hong Kong residents, Indonesian or Malaysian minorities, as well as climate change refugees from small island states.

With the US again radically reducing its humanitarian quota for the next year to 30,000 (45,000 last year, 110,000 the year before), pressure on Australia to play a bigger role can be expected and advocates will need to ensure Canberra steps up, as with the Syrian refugees. As we know from the past, the capacity of refugees to inflame politics is not a function of their numbers or threat to public order. The greater demands for support and less “supply” in the next period is an important reason for a rethink and an expansion of the support base.

In a recent article, Prof Savitri Taylor concluded “The problem of how to create a stable climate of public opinion favouring refugees and people seeking asylum is one that is yet to be solved”.   What cripples the achievement of better policy is that a significant section of the population holds a contrary view to the mainstream refugee advocates on boat arrivals, and Canberra is confident it can count on their support. Despite the successful naval blockade since late 2013 which should have diminished the fear factor, recent research by Andrew Markus and Dharmalingam Arunachalam shows that public opinion on pro and anti boat arrivals still lines up in its long term 1:2 ratio, with “‘consistent majority support for government policies of mandatory detention and offshore processing”. The authors say “the findings also show that the young, females, tertiary educated, financially better off and those born in the United Kingdom are more likely oppose turning refugee boats back”. Note the less supportive groups.

Yet other Pew research suggests Australians are much more positive than Europeans about people of different races, ethnicities and nationalities, and more accepting of Muslims’ intentions to join in (although the divide on the latter is about half and half).  So refugee supporters need to think more about how Australia’s strong disillusion with leadership and institutions may play out, and how to effectively respond. Demographic assumptions about the natural supporters and opponents of refugees, to learn more about what’s possible in the different Australian context, need to avoid broad labelling. The Italian research model in the hyperlinked article above could be useful to see who is with us, who is agin us, and where the messaging or its content could be tailored.

I suggest that until we can expand the proportion of the population who identify with our goals and demonstrate this to government as a potent force, the political “weaponising” by government of the refugee issue will continue. While the personal stories, films, histories, poetry and cultural events are very worthy and sustaining, we are at a time when learning, thinking and strategising needs attention so we can win over more support from wider circles – then the politicians will follow.

Kevin Bain has a background in economic analysis and teaching. His Refugee Reading Guide can be accessed at the Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group website.


Kevin Bain has a background in economic analysis and teaching. His Refugee Reading Guide can be accessed at Mornington Peninsula Human RightsGroup.

This entry was posted in Refugees, Immigration. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to KEVIN BAIN. New thinking needed on refugee policy for a new period (Part 1 of 2)

  1. Kien Choong says:

    . ‘… we are at a time when learning, thinking and strategising needs attention so we can win over more support from wider circles – then the politicians will follow.’

    In a well-functioning democracy, our political leaders ought to lead, not follow! But unfortunately in Australia (and many other Western democracies), politicians prefer to “weaponise” the refugee issue.

    My suggestion is not to focus on the immediate refugee crisis that each country faces, but to see the refugee crisis as a long-term global issue much like climate change. There are 3 key challenges for our generation: (i) climate change, (ii) fostering inclusive growth, and (iii) addressing the global refugee crisis. All 3 require the nations of the world to work together.

    If each country focuses on the immediate refugee crisis, there is understandably a free-riding problem. Why should one country take in refugees if other equally wealthy countries do not. To overcome the free riding problem, countries need to work together and take responsibility for hosting the refugees of the world in proportion to their respective capabilities (as with mitigating carbon emissions). Our rules should be reviewed so that refugees do not have to risk life and limb to cross oceans in order to assert a right of refuge. The right to seek refuge ought to be recognised as a human right that all countries must collectively protect, vs leaving the burden disproportionately to lower-income countries (e.g., Jordan, Turkey).

    It should not be difficult for a Christian Prime Minister like Scott Morrison to understand that even foreigners have rights. The responsibility to treat foreigners with justice goes all the way back to the Old Testament (e.g., Deuteronomy). Churches ought to recall the fight against slavery in the 19th century, and commit to ending the refugee crisis just as 19th century Anglicans spoke out to outlaw slavery throughout the British Empire.

    The refugee crisis is not a difficult problem, but only if the nations of the world work together. It is easy to address! I am sure it won’t harm economic growth, and in fact, I would argue that taking in refugees is good for long-term economic growth.

    • Kevin Bain says:

      Thanks for the comments Kien Choong. In his 2017 book “The Mess We’re In – Managing the Refugee Crisis”, Andrew Bennetts covered the issues you’ve raised well, including the Australian angle.

  2. tasi timor says:

    ‘the political “weaponising” by government of the refugee issue will continue’

    Shorten and the ALP are compromised by the burden of former Immigration Minsiters Bowen and Burke and others from the period, who should have been put out to pasture long ago. Protecting their legacies and reputations [and Rudd’s, Gillard’s] entails covering up their failures and the failures of the senior public servants and heads of department who advised them. The ALP cannot attack the falsities of the Coalition’s narrative for fear of reprisals it can’t hope to defend against. Until the ALP rids itself of Bowen and Burke no honesty can be expected, the public will continue to be misinformed, and the ALP will continue to be stigmatised as soft on national security. If even Jack Waterford on this blog some time ago believes the ALP can’t be trusted on national security, why should voters think otherwise? Lance the boil.

  3. David Brown says:

    I cant resist just summarising my simple views:

    solve terrorism and refugees by withdrawing all military actions and substituting with diplomacy and strong support for UN blue helmets as a world police force when necessary

    treat all refugees that apply for safe haven in Australia on a temporary or permanent basis with processing in Australia
    supply seaworthy boats or provide other transport to anyone that applies as a refugee to come by sea and assist any that encounter problems at sea
    (assume much cheaper than current expensive arrangements)

  4. Andreas Wagner says:

    I respectfully take issue with your statement:

    “With the US again radically reducing its humanitarian quota for the next year to 30,000 (45,000 last year, 110,000 the year before), pressure on Australia to play a bigger role can be expected and advocates will need to ensure Canberra steps up, as with the Syrian refugees. ”

    Pressure can be expected (by who?), and Canberra needs to step up (why?).

    Is it not a fact that the mass dislocation of people in recent years is a direct consequence of the war mongering of the very same US? Think about Gen. Wesley Clark’s “Regime Change in 5 Countries”, Hillary Clinton’s gloating “We came, we saw, he died!” after the collapse of Libya, the 17 year US war in Afghanistan (no end in sight, but they are winning), the total destruction of IRAQ. And more war is envisaged, this time in IRAN.

    This pressing refugee problem ought to be sheeted home to where it originates, the USA.
    It will continue unless the perpetrator can be forced by World opinion to retract from their destructive path.

    • Kevin Bain says:

      Hi Andreas, I’m not sure if you are aware this is an Australian blog. Like all agitators my first audience is my people and what we can do locally to advance the cause.

      The US is only able to exercise global power in concert with collaborators in ruling circles in other countries. My country has been an enthusiastic and active participant in wars on behalf of the US in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and our leaders still have no apologies for what I see as their excessive involvement in the first case, and criminality in the two other cases.

      During the aftermath of the Vietnam War where we were also Uncle Sam’s stooge, similar consequences were responded to positively by Aust. political parties and the people at large. Certainly international organisations know this and expect Australia to rectify its criminality by looking after those people who have fled from these countries. This is well known and the expectation is that we will not shirk our responsibility now.

      Second point is that as an island continent with a technical ability to prevent entry by sea has been exploited to deny asylum seekers the right of entry. Consequently Australia has had an easy ride, with low numbers of boat people, over the last 5 years they have been turned back with unknown consequences.
      It would be nice to know how to mobilise world opinion against this, unfortunately most countries are becoming less like global citizens, whereas the problems cry out for agreement towards mutual objectives.

      The main theme of my posting was about the disconnect between the rulers and the ruled. I hope you can see how I “join the dots” tomorrow and would like to hear your comments again.

      • Andreas Wagner says:

        Hi Kevin, I have read your reply and am looking forward to reading your second part. (Btw, I have been living in AUS for the last 45+ years).

  5. roma guerin says:

    In your first paragraph you say public conversation is needed. I despair of this ever happening. As a desktop volunteer activist of advanced years, I have supported everyone I can via Facebook, where there is constant information-sharing, but the brick wall is the media. The Saturday Paper is the flagbearer in print, Guardian Au and radionz are the only media reporting regularly on Facebook. As long as Murdoch controls commercial media in Australia, I cannot see how public discourse will increase to the extent so urgently required. Thank you for your article and I will share it to my FB page in the hope that it will have an impact to my followers.

    • Kevin Bain says:

      Thanks for the response, Roma. I feel the “refugee movement” is a hub of groups of separated activists and volunteers, like you, and the groups comprise people who gravitate towards others according to what you feel you want to do (grandmothers, students, mothers, local groups, branches of Amnesty or Oxfam etc.), and operate largely independently from others – in the main.

      Danger is that we all do what we are comfortable doing, which is sustainable, but the main game – govt policy which determines refugee lives – is secondary, because it is political, and these days many people think politics is a dirty gam to be avoided at all costs.

      In my view, we largely avoid face to face events where we can try and persuade the mainstream (the 2/3 of the population who consistently reject our views) that they need to change. Where’s the future in that? First, we need to talk about how to change their minds, that’s what I am getting at when I say public conversation is needed. I hope Part 2 of my commentary on Friday will make it clearer.

      Again, thanks for your feedback. Kevin

Comments are closed.