Over the past 15 years, Australia’s immigration debate has focused on whether “illegal” boat arrivals can be prevented by policies in the home country, or whether they are determined primarily by refugee flows in the countries of origin. This is broadly referred to as the debate about “push” versus “pull” factors in immigration. On the one hand, commentators (generally “conservative”) suggest that Australia’s “lax” immigration policies, and generous policies towards refugees, encourage people to try to come here. These “lax” policies seem to be primarily represented by the visa system, and so the Howard (“conservative”) government introduced Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) which offer no guarantee of a long-term home – theoretically the holder of a TPV will be required to return home when their national situation stabilizes. This seems hardly likely to be a deterrent given that the national situation in nations like Afghanistan and Sri Lanka doesn’t stabilize over periods of less than a decade, but a deterrent it is believed to be. Other policies are often seen as part of this process of reducing “pull” factors – offshore processing, reduction of benefits (a big issue in the UK, where asylum seekers cannot get any benefits or access the NHS), restrictions on family reunions, etc. Of course, all of these policies are predicated on the idea that in amongst this flood of refugees is a certain non-trivial proportion of people who are not “genuine” refugees, and that for some reason these people need to be weeded out and prevented from “taking advantage” of our “generous” systems.

On the other hand, some commentators (generally “left wing”) suggest that immigration flows are primarily driven by the situation in the countries where people come from, and desperate people are largely unconcerned about the policies of the countries they are fleeing to. Under this “push” philosophy, people flood out of their home country when everything goes to shit, and the policies of the countries they’re heading to don’t amount to more than a temporary impediment. Basically under this model a bunch of people from Syria, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar have been heading away, and some of them have got trapped in Malaysia and Indonesia. From there they dribble out on boats to Australia, and Australia’s specific processing and visa policies aren’t relevant because people will do remarkable things when the alternative is either dying in their homeland or rotting in a transit camp in intermediary countries.

Unfortunately, the truth of this battle – which to Australians is important, because we’re the 8th richest country in the world, so it would be a disaster to us if a couple of thousand people took advantage of our hospitality – is difficult to resolve in the Australian context. National visa and asylum seeker management policy has changed frequently, but drivers of refugee flow have changed separately in a complex way: the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq has ebbed and flowed, wars have sprung up in Syria and Libya, the war in Sri Lanka flared up and came to an end, and the situation in Myanmar and Pakistan is complex and unknowable. Furthermore, at various times the Australian government’s policies of direct intervention against boats – turning them back, or leaving them to drift against international maritime law, or sending the SAS to raid boats that rescued refugees – has changed. Currently the government refuses to report numbers of arrivals or boats turned back, so it’s impossible to assess the success of the current policy. So the debate in Australia – and let’s face it, knowing whether these people are trying to take advantage is far more important than helping them – has been difficult to resolve.

This week the Guardian had an article describing how refugee flows have changed in Europe, and this article – if true – gives some further information about the relative importance of push vs. pull factors. The situation in Europe is dire, and dwarfs Australia’s refugee “problem”, and the level of human catastrophe also dwarfs the situation that the Australian Prime Minister was crying crocodile tears about while in opposition – hundreds of people drown at a time on a regular basis in the Mediterranean. From the clinical standpoint of trying to answer the oh-so-important question of whether they’re all grafters, Europe is a much more useful experimental setting, because it involves multiple countries with multiple different policies on asylum and refugee management. The refugees are targeting France, Italy and Greece, and they have been coming overland and by sea. Since Greece built a wall more have been coming by sea, and the numbers have exploded since the war in Syria – 350 in 2012 compared to 7000 in 2013 – and these refugees are targeting several countries that, as far as I can tell, haven’t changed their migration and asylum-seeker handling policies at all. It’s also worth noting that the mediterranean doesn’t have any interim processing centres – people flee straight to the reception countries – whereas Australia is the target of people spilling over from processing centres in Indonesia and Malaysia. So presumably Europe’s experience measures actual changes in flow, rather than changes in interim processing centres. The UN is proposing processing centres to handle the huge numbers and reduce the appalling fatalities at sea, but no one appears to be proposing changes in European policy that would “discourage” asylum seekers – neither is anyone proposing resettling them all on a malaria-ridden remote island where they can riot at their leisure without being filmed. Uncivilized brutes, those Europeans. But this lack of “deterrent” measures is not new, yet the flow has changed – at just the time that the west is also receiving reports of new brutalities in Syria, and the collapse of the rebel efforts there.

I take the events in Europe as strong evidence for the “push” theory of refugee flows. That isn’t to say that changing “pull” factors wouldn’t affect these flows, but given there is literally nowhere else for these people to go (except Australia?) it seems unlikely they’d make a difference. The European experience confirms my suspicion that refugee flows are primarily determined by what is happening in the origin country, not by the policies of the destination countries. Which, unless we can find a way to stop the chaos happening in the middle east[1], is going to mean accepting that we need to start accepting more refugees, and preparing for bigger flows in the future. An unlikely political outcome, at best …


fn1: I wonder if not supporting insurgencies might be a good start?

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