Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Go back to where you came from - Australia's talking

Last night SBS aired their new three part series Go Back To Where You Came From, where six Aussies take part in a 'reverse refugee' experience.

I think most viewers would agree that it was particularly interesting to watch the participant's reactions to meeting refugees and visiting detention centres.  Participants are from quite different backgrounds, and they have a variety of opinions on refugee policy.

The show apparently has twitter all a buzz, and is generating quite a deal of media commentary.  Much of the reaction focuses on the apparent ignorance of one particular participant to the real situation of refugees - especially in light of their strong opinions on the matter.

My wife suggested that there was a clear pattern in the participant's attitudes - those with broad travel experience seem to have more tolerant views.  It was telling that a couple of participants had never left Australia before the show.

What I found missing from the show, which would have been a nice complement to the emotional dimension, is reference to the actual statistics on refugees, their country of origin, the proportion coming by boat, and the changes in refugee numbers over time.

This is important because the public debate usually overlooks a couple of key points.

1. Boat people are a minority of asylum seekers and a tiny fraction of total immigration (graph below from here)

2. The number of asylum seeker arriving in Australia correlates strongly with global numbers, suggesting that it is not so much the policy of the destination country that influences the number of arrivals, but the situation in the country of origin (see the graph below).

For more detailed analysis of the factors involved in refugee outcomes, read this detailed article. I look forward to the follow up episodes tonight and tomorrow, and recommend the program to anyone even slightly interested in the topic.


  1. Sorry Cameron, emotionally charged TV programs will not influence me. It fails to motivate or manipulate me into changing my views. Why?
    Because I am a 'former' UN refugee who has done it all. As such, I support the UNHCR migration process and UN Refugee Convention.

    The Howard government's policy of 'offshore processing' (under the UN supervision) is fair to all refugees, not just to those who are close enough for a short sea trip and can afford to pay for a boat.

  2. Anon,

    I'm not saying I don't support the formal processes for resettling refugees, and in particular, a process that is fair to all. I do. I took it as given that this was a goal shared by many.

    My point is that Australia's policy on how to process asylum seekers appears to have little bearing on how many arrive, either by boat or other means. Our arrivals are strongly correlated with arrivals elsewhere in the world.

    Therefore, the political slogan 'stop the boats' seems misguided.

    I'm happy for people arriving by boat to be 'put in the queue' (wherever it is), for their refugee status to be assessed in due course.

    I apologise if you got the feeling I was trying to convert readers to some kind of open door approach. Sometimes a statistics do help give a better perspective.

  3. Cameron,
    No need for apology. I am biased, but believe that every Australian cares about the future of their children and what type of society they will inherit.

  4. First of all, I am glad that you decided to start writing this blog again because I enjoyed your blog prior your temporary vacuum ?

    But, somehow I don't really agree with your assertion which you said supported by statistics.

    Boat people are a minority of asylum seekers and a tiny fraction of total immigration

    This maybe the case, but for me and many others it is not about the number or proportion of total numbers of people coming to Australia. For me, it is more to how much this "non-regular" asylum-seekers cost taxpayers in terms of processing costs and welfare costs after they're settled in Australia. My feeling is they maybe small proportion of total immigration but their costs to taxpayers will be much higher than their numbers / proportion to total immigration would suggest.

    The number of asylum seeker arriving in Australia correlates strongly with global numbers, suggesting that it is not so much the policy of the destination country that influences the number of arrivals, but the situation in the country of origin

    If this is true, then why didn't those Afghans, Iraqis etc tried to seek asylum and settle in their first safe city / country outside their home-country ? Why didn't they try to seek asylum and settle in Malaysia or Indonesia or Iran or Jordan etc en route to their final destination i.e. Australia ? Everybody who's agree with me knows that they're coming to Australia mostly because of the appeals of living conveniently in Australia supported by too-generous welfare policy here. But, hey maybe it's only me.

    And by the way, your wife is wrong again. I myself is a migrant from Asia and I came here 8 years ago and I visited a few countries in the world yet I still don't feel like to see my taxes going to pay for "welfares" to people who don't care to follow international refugee laws and Australian immigration law. For me, they're just thugs who want to have free ride in Australia. Genuine refugee has no resource to pay people-smuggler and has to stay and wait patiently in so many refugee camps in around the world.

  5. I see where you're coming from Deo about refugees taking a 'second bite' at asylum.

    Although I'm not sure why other asylum seekers don't also cost the taxpayer quite a bit in welfare while they resettle.

    Obviously asylum seekers are not going to be the economic contributors in the same way as highly skilled migrants. But I wouldn't say there would be a huge variation amongst asylum seekers themselves (although I have no data to support this claim).

    Imagine a civil war in Indonesia. There might be 7 million refugees. We'd be one of the closest neighbours. Should we accept, say, 5 million of them? Or would we be happy to see quite a few take a second chance and move on to NZ, the US, or other parts of SE Asia?

    The whole point of the show as to reveal that just hopping over the nearest border leaves you in refugee camp limbo, possible for decades. One of the families spent 9 years in a camp before getting accepted here, and their extended famliy still lives in the camp. There is a massive incentive to 'queue jump' by getting on a boat.

    Genuine refugees can have resources. Imagine the Jews in Nazi Germany. During civil war it is often the wealthy who become targets - to be made an example of.

    It's obviously a complex issue. Do you have any suggestions?

  6. Cameron

    in my opinion the UNHCR was set up under entirely different circumstances to the existing world situation. The premises and reasons for voting were incredibly different. But like the automaton that it is, it continues to function irrespective of anything else.

    If we *really* gave a FF about the refugee situation we would take everyone who was a refugee. Imagine where that would get us.

    Its one thing for Pakistan to take heaps of the refugees, but its another to use that as any argument on our intake. There people can just walk across the border. There is far less social difficulty (or money spent on them) at them integrating into live there.

    Compared to Australia they come from a whole different world with an entirely different set of expectations and ideas of what is acceptable.

    Next is quantity, if we are making barely any scratch on the surface are we just being tokenistic?


    If they came from NZ or PNG it would be to me entirely different.

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