Thursday, October 29, 2015

Ethnicity, the European migrant case and the Australian model - Musings on the European experience 2

I had not intended to follow up yesterday's post, Hygge, ethnocentricity and war - Musings on the European experience 1, today, but Mr Abbott's remarks in London yesterday made this post inevitable. You will find a transcript of Mr Abbott's remarks here.

To set a context for this post, the population of the European Union is around 508 million. The population of the Schengen area, the free travel area within the EU, is presently around 420 million. So far in 2015, some 700,000 people have crossed to Europe by boat, mainly from Syria. That's a very large number, but only a tiny percentage of the current EU or Schengen area population. Again to provide perspective, at its peak, boat arrivals in Australia at 50,000 per annum were higher proportionate to the much smaller Australian population.

The migrants who have come have come via two main routes, by sea from North Africa to Italy or, again mainly by sea. from Turkey into Greece. This map from the BBC shows the second route. It also summarises some of the country responses.

The absolute numbers may be small relative to either the EU or Schengen area populations. However, the funneling effect flowing from geography in combination with  individual country responses creates a serious load effect on individual transit countries relative to the size of domestic populations and resources. The political repercussions now threaten the survival of current Schengen arrangements and the free flow of people that has been central to EU economic success over the life of the Union.

Schengen has two major advantages. In doing away with the network of previous border controls, countries achieved significant budgetary savings. More importantly, Schengen made transport, tourism and (more broadly) doing business within Europe faster and easier. To understand this, imagine what it it would be like if  you had to go through border control if you moved between Sydney and Melbourne for the day.  The UK is not a member of Schengen. On our recent trip to the UK we flew in from Copenhagen. It took more than an hour and half to get through UK Border Force controls at Luton.

I will talk about other aspects of the EU migrant problem in other posts. For the moment, I want to focus on Mr Abbott's prescriptions for Europe. I quote from his speech:
Now, while prime minister, I was loath to give public advice to other countries whose situations are different; but because people smuggling is a global problem, and because Australia is the only country that has successfully defeated it – twice, under conservative governments – our experience should be studied. 
In Europe, as with Australia, people claiming asylum – invariably – have crossed not one border but many; and are no longer fleeing in fear but are contracting in hope with people smugglers. However desperate, almost by definition, they are economic migrants because they had already escaped persecution when they decided to move again. 
Our moral obligation is to receive people fleeing for their lives. It’s not to provide permanent residency to anyone and everyone who would rather live in a prosperous Western country than their own. That’s why the countries of Europe, while absolutely obliged to support the countries neighbouring the Syrian conflict, are more-than-entitled to control their borders against those who are no longer fleeing a conflict but seeking a better life. 
This means turning boats around, for people coming by sea. It means denying entry at the border, for people with no legal right to come; and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go. 
It will require some force; it will require massive logistics and expense; it will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever. 
We are rediscovering the hard way that justice tempered by mercy is an exacting ideal as too much mercy for some necessarily undermines justice for all. 
The Australian experience proves that the only way to dissuade people seeking to come from afar is not to let them in. Working with other countries and with international agencies is important but the only way to stop people trying to gain entry is firmly and unambiguously to deny it – out of the moral duty to protect one’s own people and to stamp out people smuggling. 
So it’s good that Europe has now deployed naval vessels to intercept people smuggling boats in the Mediterranean – but as long as they’re taking passengers aboard rather than turning boats around and sending them back, it’s a facilitator rather than a deterrent.
Australia was dealing with a relatively small number of refugees. We had an intermediate country, Indonesia, that provided a barrier as well as an entry point. This allowed us in a fairly ruthless and costly way to push the problem back on Indonesia. We stopped the boats, but this came at a cost. Part of the cost lay in our relations with Indonesia. Part of the cost was actually pushing the people flow in the direction of Europe. I don't think it a coincidence that Afghans feature heavily in the latest European statistics. Part of the cost lay in the creation of running sores on Manus and Nauru that continue to bedevil Australia today. Part of the cost lay in the diversion of aid funding from its original intent to border protection. And part of the cost lay in a coarsening and dehumanising of the Australian political debate.

These costs may have been acceptable if Australia had been able to create a regional framework that would facilitate cooperative regional action on the problem, but if anything the actions of the Abbott Government impeded such an outcome.

The European position is very different from that facing Australia. There we have an arc of instability that extends through Africa into the Middle East. Libya, once a partial barrier, is a failed state. Syria is in flames and has itself become a source of refugees. We are dealing with large numbers of people and a complex geo-political mess. European nations resumed rescuing people at sea because the human tragedy from drowning had become just too great to be borne.

If Europe is to apply the Australia solution, questions like these need to be answered:
  1. Where are the boats to be pushed back to?
  2. Where are camp equivalents to Manus and Nauru to be established?
  3. Which countries might take refugees if, as happened in the Australian case, the very act of getting on a boat precludes subsequent resettlement in Europe?  .
  4. How will the costs of the program be funded?
Clearly Europe has to take coordinated action. However, the application of simplistic principles will not provide a solution. In the meantime, the Australian case and rhetoric is feeding into the growth of national aurtarchy , the re-emergence of old nationalist and ethnic attitudes that gave us war and that great inhumanity that remains a blot upon Europe. I will look more at this issue in a later past.


Earlier in this post I wrote:  "Part of the cost lay in the creation of running sores on Manus and Nauru that continue to bedevil Australia today. ....And part of the cost lay in a coarsening and dehumanising of the Australian political debate."

One of the very real difficulties in this country is the constant negative effect of the continuing stories about immigration detention. In just the last week, we have had the release of the Amnesty report .By Hook or By Crook: Australia's Abuse of Asylum Seekers at Sea, In response, Minister Dutton stated that Australia would not be bullied, while Prime Minister Turnbull said that he would not comment on security matters, asserting that Australia had taken great care to operate within the law.

We have had the continuing saga of the sad case of Abyan, while doctors have stepped up their campaign against children in detention. Immigration issues have become a running sore in the relationship between Australia and New Zealand, with over 200 New Zealanders now held in immigration detention.

One  can debate the rights and wrong of particular cases. For example, I am suspicious of the objectivity of Amnesty reporting. However, so many stories running at so many levels in the media including the local press has become quite debilitating. We also have a problem in the re-reporting of stories globally, a re-reporting that affects Australia's international reputation.

Part of the government's problem lies not just in what is being done but the rigidity and lack of subtlety in the way it is done.  A measure of the erosion that has occurred is that many Australians simply don't believe what the Government says. To the degree that I am right, I think that's becoming a major long term problem.      . 


2 tanners said...

Waleed Aly's opinion piece is rather sharp and to the point. (Covers Blair's'apology' as well as Abbott's speech).

For me, it very much illustrates your point about being able to believe in politicians, but there are still a lot of Australians responding to the dog whistle.

Rummuser said...

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi 2t. I have a long post part completed that bears upon Australian attitudes. In very simple terms, dogwhistles can affect attitudes on particular issues but does not necessarily affect broader beliefs. That is in part where Mr Abbott went wrong. We can call it the bridge too far syndrome.

Thanks, Ramana. Saw that piece.

2 tanners said...

I'll look forward to your argument, Jim, but I think there are some massive issues that need addressing to make such a case.

Labor put in place a policy of not allowing themselves to be wedged by not permitting a paper's width distance in policy between them and LNP. Shorten did very nicely out of it, pointing to Abbott's broken promises. Turnbull has inherited the broken promises but because ALP knew Abbott was hated they linked the promises to Abbott rather than to the LNP. Shorten ran on the "I'm not Tony Abbott" platform, emphasising through the Captain Call decisions that it really was Abbott.

Now Turnbull has most of the benefits of the broken promises intact (eg funds from cuts to SBS and ALP) but "it's not his fault". Because he's not Tony Abbott, and for any with any memory, had important decisions made about his portfolio without being involved or even informed.

So we have Labor running on the LNP platform and Liberal (not LNP) tiptoeing a little to the left to try and mop up some of the jointly unrepresented (e.g. climate worriers) but very wary of the continuing dog whistlers. The last thing that the movements in the polls seem to represent though, is movement in policy.

Otherwise we'd be seeing the Greens shake off some of their past, well deserved unpopularity.

But let me not be seen dissing an article that I haven't read because it hasn't yet been written :)

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi 2t. The survey results suggest that all the rhetoric has tightened attitudes on refugees and boat people. However, that tightening has not affected broader attitudes about the importance of an inclusive society. The results also suggest that Australians believe that Australia has become less inclusive, more unfair. The net effect is to open a gap between Mr Abbott's position and the pattern of community opinion.

It may be Wednesday before I get the post up.

2 tanners said...


I am, without evidence, feeling more saddened and cynical than ever. for instance, I don't think most Australians are, in their minds, singing "Step inside, love" to the refugees. They are singing "What about me?" to the Government. It's not about mateship and it's not about compassion.

Abbott stupidly kicked the bulk of Australian's in their most electorally sensitive body part, the hip pocket nerve. His failure to be able to backtrack convincingly on anything - for him it really was a backflip, not a reasoned evaluation of evidence - ensured his enduring unpopularity. And his government's complete inability to negotiate with the crossbenches meant that he could never pass 'signature' legislation without Labor's consent.

Jim Belshaw said...

I am less pessimistic than you 2t!