There has been a dramatic change recently in the way many countries view refugees.
Facing severe labour shortages amid record-low unemployment rates, people fleeing conflict are more likely to be seen as a potential source of needed staffing and skill. And since today’s conflicts are more likely to elicit sympathy, there is less public opposition to the presence of refugee claimants, after a dark period in the 2010s. In general, governments are scrambling to find ways to settle more of them.
Not all governments, though.
One of the worst policy ideas of the 21st century has continued to cling to the political mainstream this year. It might be called the “vote them off the island” approach, formally known as “offshore confinement,” in which newcomers are literally shipped to another land and held there at exorbitant expense.
The concept never made sense. But in recent days it has survived two votes in English-speaking countries – tellingly, in isolated island countries that are comparatively safe from actual migration pressures.
When 148 of Boris Johnson’s Tory MPs cast ballots to eject him as British Prime Minister on Monday night in an ultimately unsuccessful in-party non-confidence vote, many of those rebel MPs pointed not just at his illegal partying and Brexit devastation, but at a deal with the government of Rwanda that many of them still say they have trouble believing took place.
This spring, Mr. Johnson’s government pledged the equivalent of $189-million to the government of Rwanda. In exchange, the impoverished East African country will receive tens of thousands of migrants who have attempted to enter Britain; they will be intercepted, flown to Kigali and held in hotels – officially for “processing,” which could take years.
Even many Conservatives were revolted by this plan, which is likely illegal under both British and international law. Jesse Norman, a former member of Mr. Johnson’s cabinet, explained in a letter that he had voted to oust the PM in part because he found the Rwanda deal “ugly, likely to be counterproductive and of doubtful legality.”
The idea was imported from Australia, where the practice first gained ground in 2001 when a freighter ship picked up a few hundred asylum seekers and the Liberal government refused to allow it entry.
It was never about anything other than votes and public image. As Canadians know from experience, in geographically isolated countries where most immigrants and refugees arrive at airports, there’s an irrational panic when even a few people show up in boats or on foot. But if they never land, they never have rights.
This concept really took off in 2013, when a few boatloads of refugees, mainly from the Afghanistan conflict, inspired the Australian government to build detention centres on the desolate islands of Manus (part of Papua New Guinea) and Nauru (an island country). Canberra pledged never to resettle these people in Australia, even if they passed screening and were found to be legitimate refugees (as most were).
The result was a humanitarian catastrophe, with families held in prison-camp conditions for years. As Nick Martin, a doctor stationed in Nauru with the Australian Navy, told an interviewer: “All you can try to do is stop people from killing themselves … you can try and give them hope but what are you giving them hope for?”
Asylum seekers tend to be more expensive to manage than other immigrants, although even during crises they represent only a tiny fraction of annual immigration. A significant proportion will not qualify and will need to be deported or paid to leave; to be humane, this process needs to be quick, but it can also be expensive. But the remaining genuine refugees tend to be valuable contributors to the economy and life of a country – if they’re allowed to enter.
Offshore detention is much more expensive. Each refugee held in the Nauru facility reportedly costs Australia $440,000 a month, or $5.3-million a year.
Last month’s election brought a new, more moderate Labor government into power. But new Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, though critical of offshore detention in the past, vowed to keep Nauru open and the system in place.
It will likely die of attrition, for a reason that should be obvious in labour-starved Australia: Other countries want their refugees. New Zealand has taken 450 from the island, Canada more than 140 and the United States at least 750 over the past decade.
Many of them have already become citizens, and have blended into those countries and their economies easily. It’s a stark contrast: those host countries are gaining employment and tax revenue from their new residents, while the governments of Australia and Britain are willing to pay millions each year to prevent that benefit from ever being realized. Voting them off the island was never going to be a feasible or humane concept, and should have been left to reality TV.
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