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.

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Kevin Bain is an economic analyst, social entrepreneur and teacher in Australia and Indonesia. He reviews refugee books at Refugee Research Online and his Reading Guide on refugees, immigration and multiculturalism is hosted at Mornington Peninsula Human Rights Group

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