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Responding to boat arrivals in Australia: time for a reality check

13 December 2010   |   Analysis   |   By Dr Khalid Koser

With boat arrivals featuring prominently on the Australian political agenda, 2010-2011 saw a flurry of policy proposals focused on mitigating this trend. This report situates recent developments in Australian asylum policy within an international context and considers the efficacy of restrictive asylum policies in light of global migration trends. Koser concludes that, in failing to address the root causes of people movement, the policies proposed or implemented by the Australian government will have little effect upon the flow of asylum seekers from Afghanistan and other countries to Australia.

‘…Australia is worrying about the wrong asylum seekers. Whereas the majority of those arriving by boat are refugees, the majority of those arriving by air are not’. (p 6)

Key Findings
Boat arrivals occupy a central place in Australian public discussion about asylum seekers despite the fact that most people who arrive by boat turn out to be genuine refugees.
National asylum policy is not an effective tool for stemming flows of people across borders and to Australia.
Displaced people make choices about destination based on a complex set of factors. Australia’s asylum policy does not feature strongly in their calculations.

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    Boat arrivals occupy a unique position in Australian domestic political debate, with each new arrival focusing the attention of Australian policy- makers and media commentators. Since the ascension of the Rudd government in 2007 and its subsequent abolition of the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution, the number of boat arrivals to Australia has increased significantly. Subsequent political and public debate has focused on whether the surge in boat arrivals to Australia can be linked causally to changes in Australian asylum policy. Both the Opposition and the Gillard government have demonstrated a belief in tough asylum policy as a deterrent to asylum seekers, proposing more stringent asylum policies to stem this increase in arrivals.

    In this Lowy Institute paper Dr Koser questions whether Australia is facing a crisis that merits a tougher asylum policy. He takes issue with the focus of recent Australian asylum policy debate and argues that domestic asylum policy is not a mechanism through which governments can effectively regulate the number of asylum claimants arriving at their borders. Dr Koser considers the complex interplay of variables that shape asylum trends, including ‘push factors’ - those adverse circumstances in asylum seeker producing countries that prompt people to cross international borders to seek asylum. He analyses the factors which shape the choices made by asylum seekers about destination and considers the role of social networks in determining potential destination countries.

    The paper recommends that the Australian Government look beyond a narrow focus on border enforcement to pay more attention to the various ‘root causes’ of people movement.