Wake up to the real refugee issue, Australia

The problem in this debate is not people smuggling.

The drowning of hundreds of Australia-bound asylum seekers in Indonesian waters this week has highlighted, once again, the pressing need for Australian to rethink its refugee policy. Instead, political discourse has quickly degenerated to finger-pointing and vilification of people smugglers.

Tragically, the fact that Julia Gillard's government and the Coalition have harnessed the large-scale loss of life not as a catalyst for the immediate overhaul of the country's punitive treatment of boat people, but merely as further fuel for a relentless blame game, is far from surprising: Australian politicians have been trotting out this trick for over a decade.

It is hard to forget the Howard government's appalling behaviour as the SIEV 4 went down near Christmas Island a decade ago; with an election looming, then-Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, and Defence Minister Peter Reith repeated publicly the lie that the desperate travellers onboard had thrown their children overboard. Just weeks thereafter, the SIEV X sunk near Java, claiming 353 lives. While a nearby Australian warship could have attended the site within five hours, Australia chose to do nothing; instead,survivors clung to wreckage for 20 hours before being picked up by Indonesian fishing boats.

Many Australian Labor Party sympathisers, including myself, held out earnest hope that Howard's successor Kevin Rudd would reframe the refugee debate in more humane and sensible terms. Depressingly, Rudd seemed mostly intent on demonising people smugglers as the "absolute scum of the earth", before imposing a shocking freeze on refugee claims by Sri Lankan and Afghans amid heavy criticism from the UNHCR.

Then, in mid-2010, it was the Gillard government's turn. Despite promising announcements late last year about moving children and families into community-based accommodation, many left-leaning Australians were disappointed again with its proposed Malaysia deal, which sought to "swap" asylum seekers for refugees and flouted Australia's international law obligations.

The rejection of the Malaysia plan by the High Court in August this year presented the Labor government with a choice: it could either harness the opportunity to turn away from the well-worn moral low road, or continue engaging in the shabby dog-whistle politics to which the nation has become accustomed since Howard. The Gillard government, sadly, seems to have chosen the latter.

As under Rudd's leadership, the fingers in the current asylum seeker debate are mostly pointed at people smugglers. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday described the current onshore processing arrangement as a signal to people smugglers that Australia was open for business; shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, not to be outdone, released a tirade against people-smuggling "criminals", who "seek to exploit vulnerable people for their own profit."

The fact is that desperate individuals, like the many Hazara refugees currently fleeing persecution at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will always choose to pack their family onto a boat bound for Australia rather than see them die at the hands of a tyrannical regime; moreover, there will always be a group of people willing to assist their passage. Australian politicians' tough talk and anti-smuggling legislation are less likely to reach the "big fish" behind these operations than they are the few Indonesian fishermen motivated to take an unsafe boat journey by their own desperation.

By framing the matter as a debate about people smuggling, Australian politicians are skirting the crux of the issue: the needs of the vulnerable people seeking protection from persecution. These people are asking for the nation's help. Australia needs to wake up to their grisly plight, and start facilitating adequate alternative pathways for their escape.

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Brexit is teaching the UK that it needs immigrants

Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past.

Why did the UK vote to leave the EU? For conservatives, Brexit was about regaining parliamentary sovereignty. For socialists it was about escaping the single market. For still more it was a chance to punish David Cameron and George Osborne. But supreme among the causes was the desire to reduce immigration.

For years, as the government repeatedly missed its target to limit net migration to "tens of thousands", the EU provided a convenient scapegoat. The free movement of people allegedly made this ambition unachievable (even as non-European migration oustripped that from the continent). When Cameron, the author of the target, was later forced to argue that the price of leaving the EU was nevertheless too great, voters were unsurprisingly unconvinced.

But though the Leave campaign vowed to gain "control" of immigration, it was careful never to set a formal target. As many of its senior figures knew, reducing net migration to "tens of thousands" a year would come at an economic price (immigrants make a net fiscal contribution of £7bn a year). An OBR study found that with zero net migration, public sector debt would rise to 145 per cent of GDP by 2062-63, while with high net migration it would fall to 73 per cent. For the UK, with its poor productivity and sub-par infrastructure, immigration has long been an economic boon. 

When Theresa May became Prime Minister, some cabinet members hoped that she would abolish the net migration target in a "Nixon goes to China" moment. But rather than retreating, the former Home Secretary doubled down. She regards the target as essential on both political and policy grounds (and has rejected pleas to exempt foreign students). But though the same goal endures, Brexit is forcing ministers to reveal a rarely spoken truth: Britain needs immigrants.

Those who boasted during the referendum of their desire to reduce the number of newcomers have been forced to qualify their remarks. On last night's Question Time, Brexit secretary David Davis conceded that immigration woud not invariably fall following Brexit. "I cannot imagine that the policy will be anything other than that which is in the national interest, which means that from time to time we’ll need more, from time to time we’ll need less migrants."

Though Davis insisted that the government would eventually meet its "tens of thousands" target (while sounding rather unconvinced), he added: "The simple truth is that we have to manage this problem. You’ve got industry dependent on migrants. You’ve got social welfare, the national health service. You have to make sure they continue to work."

As my colleague Julia Rampen has charted, Davis's colleagues have inserted similar caveats. Andrea Leadsom, the Environment Secretary, who warned during the referendum that EU immigration could “overwhelm” Britain, has told farmers that she recognises “how important seasonal labour from the EU is to the everyday running of your businesses”. Others, such as the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, and the Communities Secretary, Sajid Javid, have issued similar guarantees to employers. Brexit is fuelling immigration nimbyism: “Fewer migrants, please, but not in my sector.”

The UK’s vote to leave the EU – and May’s decision to pursue a "hard Brexit" – has deprived the government of a convenient alibi for high immigration. Finally forced to confront the economic consequences of low migration, ministers are abandoning the easy rhetoric of the past. Brexit may have been caused by the supposed costs of immigration but it is becoming an education in its benefits.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.