There’s no evidence that asylum seeker deterrence policy works

Interception at sea causes unnecessary confusion for Navy and Customs personnel. AAP/ADF

Since 2001, the Border Crossing Observatory estimates 840 people have died between Australia and Indonesia, including the equivalent of eight kindergarten classes of children.

Policies of deterrence have become the “common sense” approach when it comes to what should be done about asylum seekers – both in terms of stopping the boats and in terms of saving lives.

The problem is that both these assumptions are largely unjustifiable based on the evidence.

Deterrence has not decreased deaths

Deterring irregular border crossings does not necessarily decrease border related deaths. Evidence suggests in some contexts deterrence can simply displace deaths to another site, or changes the demographics of who dies.

In the US, research has found a relationship between deterrence policies and an increased number of border deaths.

For example, on the US-Mexico Border when Operation Hold the Line and Operation Gatekeeper were announced by President Bill Clinton in 1993-4, it was always contended that border control would rely on increasing the risk of death to deter crossings. Instead, migrants were effectively “funnelled” into the most dangerous crossings and deaths dramatically increased.

Research has found a symbiotic relationship between increased border control and the role of organised criminal networks and increasingly risky border crossings. The data demonstrates that as apprehensions along the US-Mexico border increased, the risks taken by those crossing increased.

In Europe, deaths occur at a number of crossing points and are increasingly dispersed. While recent efforts by European border security agency FRONTEX have seen a reduction in Mediterranean crossings, my research has found there has been an increase in land crossings across the Turkey/Greece border and an increase deaths crossing the Evros River and along the coast of Turkey.

Untested waters

To date, deterrence in the Australian context has not been robustly tested in terms of push, transit and pull elements.

While data show a period in which irregular maritime arrivals (IMAs) significantly dropped or stopped, the relationship between deterrence and IMAs still needs rigorous testing (currently being undertaken by the Border Crossing Observatory). Therefore claims made as to the effectiveness of deterrence strategies (Temporary Protection Visas, offshore processing and mandatory detention) are largely ideological and not based on empirical research.

Five Afghani asylum seekers died when a wooden fishing vessel caught fire as it was being towed to Christmas Island in April 2009. AAP

The available evidence suggests that deterrence is unlikely to have worked in a sustained way all asylum seeker groups. For example, arrival data demonstrates significant shifts in the nationality, age and gender of arrivals over the past 12 years and more importantly significant changes within nationality groups regarding gender and age composition.

Notwithstanding the consistency of Afghan arrivals across the time period, the composition of boat arrivals prompts questions regarding whether deterrent initiatives have greater impact with some groups over others, such as women.

Current policy

There are three clearly identifiable sites of deterrence currently operating in Australia.

First, deterring or preventing access to visas for fear that entry is being sought for reasons other than for work or tourism - ie to seek asylum. These policies may actually be regarded as drivers of irregular entry for some groups. Many asylum seekers make claims for protection after travelling to Australia on a legitimate visa – this causes limited if any media attention and little bureaucratic fuss.

Second, deterrence and disruption initiatives within Indonesia. We cannot easily assess the impact of these initiatives on displacing irregular migration and asylum to less well-equipped parts of the region. Nor can we assess the extent to which they prevent or exacerbate risky voyages, or the displacement of deaths to other locations. It is possible that voyages may begin from previously unused locations for alternative entry points.

Third, onshore deterrence initiatives. At best There is mixed evidence regarding the impact of onshore deterrence measures made up of TPVs, offshore processing and immigration detention.

Researcher Roslyn Richardson, for example, has documented the unexpected ways deterrence messages (regarding TPVs, offshore processing and immigration detention) were consumed and acted upon by asylum seekers.

It’s also worth noting that the incident involving the largest loss of life (SIEV X) occurred after the introduction of offshore processing. The demographics of the passengers on the SIEV X have been widely regarded as being driven by the exclusion of family reunification as part of the temporary protection visa program.

Putting personnel at risk

Analysis of the SIEV 36 explosion suggests significant ramifications for customs and the navy for policies which depend on interception at sea. Such policies are likely to have serious ramifications for personnel involved. This is for a range of reasons.

It can lead to role conflict for staff in relation to security, rescue, migration and deterrence, as well as an increasingly blurred line between migration, military and law enforcement bodies.

Policies which depend upon the point of interception at sea can lead to heightened tensions, increased risk of harm and loss of life, as well as serious concerns regarding morale and retention of staff, the politicisation of agencies and deterioration of legitimacy both within and outside of the force.

As a criminologist, the idea that an illicit market, such as people smuggling, can be dealt with through enforcement-related strategies and broad deterrent messages has serious limitations.

Historically, the most effective approaches to reducing illicit markets have been found through regulatory measures and harm minimisation approaches, not deterrence. There is simply not enough evidence that deterrence works to justify the expense and potential harm of its implementation.


Read the rest of The Conversation’s asylum seeker coverage:

Asylum seekers and Australia: the evidence

The Conversation panel on asylum seekers: meet the experts

Infographic: global refugee populations 1975-2010

Refugee intake starts in the region: making a difference in regional burden sharing

Refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia: the good, the bad and the unexpected

What does the Australian public really think about asylum seekers?

Resettling refugees: the evidence supports increasing our intake

What role does Australia play in accepting the world’s refugees?

Who are Australia’s ‘boat people’, and why don’t they get on planes?

Uncomfortable truths: busting the top three asylum seeker myths

There’s more to regional collaboration than the Malaysia Arrangement

How immigration policy harms asylum seekers' mental health

Asylum seekers in Indonesia: why do they get on boats?

Preventing deaths at sea: asking the experts on asylum seekers