That's me on an early training run in Byron Bay when I weighed over 100 kg.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Rethinking boat-people

My little post yesterday yielded a lot of "well how are supposed to deal with boat-people then" rhetoric. I think Julian Burnside's suggestions are eminently sensible.  I have repeated them here in full. Please see his website for more intelligent discussion on the subject.

Let’s rethink our treatment of boat-people
If I could re-design the system, it would look something like this:
•      boat-arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;
•      after initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, and a right to Centrelink and Medicare benefits.  Even if none of them got a job, it would be cheaper than keeping them locked up;
•      they would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
•      during the time their visa applications were being processed, they would be required to live in rural or regional areas of Australia.  Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the rural and regional economy.  There are plenty of towns around the country which would welcome an increase in their population.
It would take a bit of political selling, although I suspect that rural and regional Australia would be quick to see the benefits of this approach. 
Consider the economics of it. 
The cost of mandatory detention is $150,000 to $450,000 per person per year, depending on place of detention.  Nauru/Manus detention costs are more variable because there is a large fixed cost, so per-head costs vary as numbers detained vary.  As at 2005, Nauru cost $1650 per person per day ($602,500 per person per year).
If we adopt the alternative proposed above – no long-term detention, process protection claims while the person lives in the community in rural or regional areas, then the cost (via Centrelink payments) would be about $16,380 per person per year, even if you assume they depend wholly on welfare support.  And all that money goes into the regional community.
There are plenty of country towns which would be glad of the economic stimulus of a boost to their population.  Who knows, in a couple of years we may be calling for more boat-people!
Given that more than 90% of boat people are found to be refugees, the fact is that we are spending vast amounts of money (way more than a billion dollars a year) locking up innocent people who will, most of them, end up with a legal right to stay here.  But by the time they join the community, they have been badly damaged - by us.  The more damaged they are, the less they are able to contribute to the community.
Some basic facts:
  • boat-people are not illegal – they break no law by coming here seeking protection;
  • there is no queue in the places they are fleeing from (the address of the Australian Embassy in Kabul is a secret, for security reasons);
  • the number of boat-people is small by any standard.  It averages around 1500 people per year. In 2012 it might get up to 20,000 but will probably be fewer than that.  For comparison, the annual intake of permanent new migrants is around 220,000 each year;
  • the number of boat people in 2012 is the equivalent of less than 3 weeks’ natural population increase in Australia;
  • most boat-people are keen to work and to settle into the community;
  • boat arrivals are not  a failure of border control.  About 4.5 million people enter Australia each year with visas, most of them for short visits. If 20,000 arrive without visas in one year, that means border control works in about 99.95% of cases.  Success 99.95% of the time can’t really be called a failure.

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