The empirical test of the Australian government’s refugee resettlement agreement with Papua New Guinea will be whether there is a decline in the numbers of small fishing boats overloaded with desperate asylum seekers setting off from Indonesia for Australia.
Whether the plan, the smuggler bounty, and the other as yet unrevealed components alluded to by Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd actually end the people smugglers’ business model and in so doing end the loss of life at sea remains a different question. Whether Australia has managed to put in place sturdy parameters for the future of refugee flows, processing and settlement offers raises another, much broader set of questions.
The business plans of people smugglers depend on structures of prohibition erected by target countries, and the lack of effective alternative pathways such structures entail.
When the NSW government finally ordered the police into Cabramatta in the late 1990s to try to end the heroin trade on the streets, there were certain foreseeable and escalating consequences.
In simple terms these consequences included increasing violence and use of firearms, increasing use of vulnerable front people especially minors, the sale of larger amounts of drugs, the hardening of sales points, and the displacement of the heroin trade to other substances (especially ice) and the displacement of the market physically to other locales. We have already seen some analogues of these outcomes in the asylum seeker regimes of detection, deterrence, and detention.
The PNG plan raises the stakes in the game. While the promise is that no-one who uses the boats will ever resettle in Australia, the suggestion from Rudd seemed to be that the unsuccessful applicants may end up in a third country if they cannot be sent back to their homeland or are stateless. Some of the successful might also be re-settled in Canada, New Zealand or the US, or another “regional country”. So, the “no Australia” mantra doesn’t necessarily mean only PNG.
Even were it to mean PNG most of the time, that is not where the story ends. Illicit movement between PNG and northern Australia is not difficult, though presumably an upgraded border watch would be needed for the whole northern Australian coastline. PNG and especially its capital Port Moresby introduce some new factors into the equation.
Leaving aside the fact that Port Moresby is a somewhat more dangerous place than Sydney, the crime bosses – both Indigenous “raskol” gangs and migrant Chinese Triads – are heavily into human trafficking. PNG is also a transhipment point for major drug runs into Australia, so some avenues for onward movement are already there.
If the Cabramatta analogy helps us look forward, then we are likely to see larger boats, more heavily protected, with larger numbers of people leaving from elsewhere in Indonesia (further east) and coming down the Australian east coast and maybe heading for New Zealand, sailing just outside the Australian maritime zone.
Once they are detected they cannot be “turned around” (boarding on the high seas is called piracy), and they are unlikely to disable. They are more likely to make a run towards the coast and try to beach: essentially turning from a strategy of throwing themselves on the mercy of the Australian navy and coast guard, to running the blockade and disappearing into the night.
This strategy would require underground networks to be built in Australia, either communal, familial or criminal, or some combination of all. The more desperate current refugees are to be reunited with their families (and the riots on Nauru are a small scale version of what is possible on Manus Island and elsewhere in the future), the more likely such a strategy would find Australian collaborators. Of course there would also be support and participation through pro-refugee citizen networks.
Essentially, Rudd’s PNG plan will only work if there is a strong, realistic and effective set of opportunities for asylum application introduced in parallel with prompt processing all the way along the line from point of origin. The current government proposal that more places might follow a reduction in boat numbers completely misses the reality of why these moves have to occur in tandem, and could well be its fatal flaw. Many more places, and a separation of the escapee flow from the camp selected, humanitarian and family reunion numbers, will be required.
As Rudd intimated, the ongoing conflict in Syria, the situation in Egypt, Afghanistan after the NATO pullout, anti-Shia mass murder in Pakistan and religious conflict in Myanmar, will contribute to the demand. We are looking at hundreds of thousands fleeing in our direction.
Those numbers give people smugglers a real advantage. As they have already shown, they can overwhelm Australia’s currently concentrated front line very quickly. If they force the line to thin and upgrade the battering rams they are using, people smugglers can afford to “lose” significant numbers of clients (killed or captured) and still deliver enough of an outcome that Australia will be hard pressed to divert. They will also be able to charge a lot more money for the privilege.
All this is without considering the social damage current policy is doing to our own value systems and legal philosophies. As I suggested in previous forays into this very fraught arena, we really do have to take the whole story into account and come up with a best fit, or least worst, way forward. PNG makes some contribution, but it leaves a mess of things undone.
Some of the unintended consequences that have dogged many of the government’s decisions can at least be foreseen in this case. The government’s responses to pre-empt these problems will need to foreground either harm minimisation or “zero tolerance” deterrence. The consequence of that decision will affect the quality of life for all Australians, not just those people making the desperate journey by boat.