At the time of the Tampa episode in 2001, Australia introduced a system of sending boat people to other countries for processing.  “Offshore processing” does not quite capture what this involves. In fact, boat people who arrive in Australia and seek asylum are forcibly evicted from Australia and have their asylum claims processed in that other country: but it is now made clear to them that those who are found to be refugees will not be resettled in Australia.  That point was made to them in 2013 very forcefully by then-Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, as an illustration of his decidedly un-Christian attitude to people who have fled persecution.

It is significant that the two places which have been chosen for this role are Nauru and Manus Island.  Nauru is a Pacific Island republic.  Its land area is a total of 21 square kilometers (It is smaller than Tullamarine Airport!).  It has a population of 10,000 people.  It does not have an adequate supply of food or water for its own people.  Manus Island is part of Papua New Guinea. It is a small island north of Port Moresby. The area of Manus Island is about 2100 square kilometres; its population is about 55,000 people.  It is mountainous and covered in jungle.

So that the size of these places makes sense, you could fit two instances of Manus Island into the Greater Melbourne area.  Nauru would fit into the Greater Melbourne area about 260 times over.  Conditions in Manus and Nauru are harsh.  Their use was heralded as part of a policy of deterrence, so the harshness is intentional.  The idea of deterrence is that, faced with the choice of facing persecution at home, or the risk of drowning followed by the harshness of Manus or Nauru, would-be asylum seekers will prefer to face the Taliban or the genocidal regime in Sri Lanka rather than head to Australia. It may not be our vision of ourselves that we look nastier than the Taliban, but that is the logic of deterrence.

The Pacific Solution costs us about 5000 million dollars a year. Shut it down once and for all.  Assume the boats will start arriving again (It is far from certain, but assume it).

I do not advocate an open borders policy.  Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is not difficult to justify.  But it should be limited to one month, and should be used for preliminary health and security checks.  After that, release them on interim visas with four crucial conditions:

  • they are allowed to work or study;
  • they are allowed full access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
  • they must stay in regular touch with the Department until their refugee status has been determined (for example, they could check in at a Post Office once a week);
  • they are required to live in a specified regional town or city until their refugee status has been determined.

There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. The National Farmers Federation estimates that there are 96,000 unfilled jobs in country areas.  It is highly likely that many asylum seekers would get jobs.

How this would work can be tested by making some assumptions.

First: numbers.  The arrival rate of boat people tracks parallel to the global movement of refugees: we aren’t a magnet, we get just a tiny percentage of refugees who are on the move.  The biggest arrival rate of boat people was in 2012, when nearly 25,000 boat people arrived.  (For comparison, the annual migration intake – people who are not refugees but move to Australia – is about 200,000 people per year).

Let us assume that 25,000 boat people arrive in Australia every year, and let us assume that all of them stay on full Centrelink benefits.

These are both highly unlikely assumptions.

It would cost us about $500 million a year.  All that money would be spent in the economies of regional towns. It is not difficult to see the benefits to the economy of regional towns and cities which are slowly losing population to the capitals.  And we would save about 4.5 thousand million tax-payer dollars each year.  And we would

In short, if we could persuade Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton to adopt a truly Christian approach to other human beings, we could be doing good for refugees and for regional Australia, instead of intentionally harming innocent people.

And isn’t Australia supposed to value the idea of a fair go for everyone??