The Limits of the ‘Australian Solution’

Refugees and reflections on the limits of feasibility-based policy argumentsRefugees and reflections on the limits of feasibility-based policy arguments

Advocates of the so-called ‘Australian solution’ often argue that it represents the only ‘feasible’ strategy for effectively addressing the refugee crisis. However, this involves serious errors about the nature and proper use of feasibility-based arguments in politics and public policy.

Hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants have sought refuge in Europe over the past several years. A great many of these migrants have fled war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries. Many thousands of irregular migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean during this period, and countries in which they arrive face significant challenges in assessing their claims to refugee status and finding ‘durable solutions’ in a timely fashion. Bref, policy-makers have scrambled to find effective strategies to address this crisis.

One such strategy is the so-called ‘Australian solution’ (or ‘Pacific solution,’ as it is generally called in Australia). Although its details have varied since it was first introduced by the Howard government in 2001, its central features have remained relatively constant. Rather than having their claims processed in Australia, the applications of irregular migrants for refugee status are assessed in offshore processing facilities (euphemistically called ‘regional processing’) – most recently in Manus Island and Nauru. Since July 2013, irregular migrants who arrive in Australian territorial waters by boat have been excluded from any pathway to resettlement in Australia as refugees. Of course, the 1951 Refugee Convention requires signatory states to grant travel and work rights to those they recognize as refugees, and so measures like offshore processing are, for all practical intents and purposes, attempts to circumvent compliance with these obligations. Despite criticism of these policies from refugee advocacy groups, the UNHCR and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, both major political parties in Australia have supported the strategy.

Two kinds of arguments have been presented in support of the Australian solution. The first appeals directly to values such as fairness, sovereignty and security. For example, when he was leader of the opposition, former prime minister Tony Abbott made much of the idea that asylum-seekers arriving by boat are ‘queue-jumpers.’ Others have argued that the Australian solution is to be preferred on humanitarian grounds: it saves lives by creating disincentives to irregular migrants who would otherwise embark on life-threatening journeys in the hope of settling in Australia. And others still have argued that the Australian solution is necessary in order to prevent a large influx of refugees that would bring security risks.

The second kind of argument appeals to considerations of feasibility. Proponents of the Australian solution often insist that (potentially more desirable) alternatives to it have been shown to be simply unworkable, non-viable and infeasible. By contrast, the Australian solution is highly effective in dissuading irregular migrants. Its introduction saw the number of boat arrivals in Australia fall from 5,516 in 2001 to only one in 2002. Its suspension in 2008 saw an increase in the number of arrivals from 148 in 2007 to 20,587 in 2013. Because the Australian solution is the only feasible means of addressing irregular migration, we are apparently left with no real choice. Prominent Labor Senator Doug Cameron, for example, abandoned his opposition to offshore detention while acknowledging its defects because “[t]his is the best approach we can adopt.”

It bears emphasizing that such feasibility-based arguments are distinctive in two key respects. First, they are supposed to be value-neutral – that is, whether or not something is feasible is not supposed to depend on whether it is desirable, but rather on cold hard facts about the world. The desirability of a proposal is one thing; its feasibility is another. Even if the Australian solution has undesirable features – as many who support it insist it does – it is still supposed to be feasible. Conversely, even if certain alternatives to the Australian solution may strike us as more desirable, they are supposed to be infeasible. Second, the charge of infeasibility is intended to remove dismissing proposals from further consideration. It works, in effect, by taking proposals off the table, rather than weighing their costs and benefits. Whereas it would be right to say of some undesirable but feasible proposal, “Yes, we could do that, but why on Earth should we want to?”, infeasible proposals are not supposed to be considered at all.

Feasibility-based arguments are rhetorically powerful. Yet they must be used with great care, since we are prone to various errors and confusions when we make them. For one thing, our judgements about feasibility tend to be infected by our judgements about costs. There is a tendency to confuse what is genuinely infeasible – and hence cannot be brought about – with what is merely costly. Suppose that a socialist government dismisses as infeasible the idea of sharply reducing corporate tax rates because doing so would alienate its core constituency. This would be an error, for it does not follow from the fact that a proposal is (even very) costly that it is infeasible. In particular, it is illegitimate to dismiss some proposal simply because it is costly. Rather, we must weigh the costs of the proposal against its benefits, comparing them with other alternatives that we can adopt. It may be that, although the proposal is very costly, the costs of the alternatives are greater still, relative to the benefits that they confer.

We also have a tendency to confuse what is infeasible with what is infeasible given certain assumptions about acceptable costs. Suppose that a US-led coalition rejects as infeasible the idea of ousting Bashar al-Assad. Presumably, this would reflect the judgement that ousting Assad cannot be brought about without incurring certain costs (large financial costs, escalating tensions, and diplomatic or even military conflict with Russia or Iran). If these assumptions are correct, then it may indeed be perfectly legitimate to dismiss as infeasible the combination of ousting Assad and not incurring these costs. But it is entirely illegitimate to dismiss as infeasible the idea of ousting Assad per se. For his ouster might be perfectly feasible so long as we incur these costs.

Such errors are omnipresent in discussions about irregular migration. It is surely not impossible that, rather than implementing offshore processing, Australia could instead process the claims of all irregular migrants who arrive by boat in Australia and grant asylum to those who are found to have refugee status. So the claim by advocates of the Australian solution that it is the only feasible one makes no sense unless it is interpreted as the claim that alternative strategies are unacceptably costly, or as the claim that alternative strategies are infeasible without incurring certain costs that are assumed to be unacceptable.

Of course, the same mistakes are sometimes made by those who oppose the Australian solution. When human rights organizations claim that offshore processing is not a feasible solution to the problem of irregular migration, this is only plausible if it is understood as asserting that the costs of such policies are unacceptable. After all, this policy has been a fixture of Australian foreign policy for over a decade and a half.

The prevalence of such errors continues to distort the debate about the Australian solution. Even when there is no active deception or manipulation at play, the fact that feasibility claims that are clearly expressing or assuming certain value judgements are being presented as if they are value-neutral risks being highly misleading at the very least. Moreover, it risks shielding the value judgements of political actors from proper scrutiny. We need to know whether the values to which politicians are implicitly appealing in their feasibility arguments are relevant, and whether they are being balanced appropriately. For example, are the costs of processing claims to refugee status in Australia really prohibitive, and does offshore processing really reduce the risks to asylum seekers of avoiding serious harms (including death)? Whereas a claim that some policy is unfair because it rewards queue-jumping, or that it is too costly to the Australian taxpayer, or that it undermines the security of Australians, naturally invites and encourages critical engagement, feasibility-based arguments typically foreclose such discussion under the guise of hard-headed realism.

Even more problematic is the possibility that certain potentially desirable proposals are being taken off the table prematurely. Many of those who brought about important social changes – consider the abolition of the African slave trade – were dismissed by contemporaries who considered such proposals to be simply infeasible. Moreover, even if a proposal for addressing irregular migration is infeasible in one form, it may be that all that is required is some imagination to envisage alternative ways of bringing it about. It may be possible to, say, process all irregular migrants in Australia without incurring great cost if the government is able to negotiate a multilateral scheme of burden-sharing with other affluent countries, such that the costs of resettlement are not borne entirely by the country where refugees settle.

How might policy-makers do better? First, they should use feasibility-based arguments sparingly. They should consider more carefully whether the arguments that they deploy really are based on feasibility, or instead draw attention to some feature of proposed policies that they regard as undesirable. They should avoid feasibility-based arguments when this invites misunderstanding or miscommunication. Second, they should use feasibility-based arguments judiciously. In making such arguments, they should be specific about the range and content of policies that they are considering. They should be explicit about the suppositions that are in the background of their arguments, such as the costs and benefits that they assume to be associated with policies they are assessing. And they should be forthright about which costs they consider to be unacceptable when evaluating these policies.

There are few more complex and urgent challenges in this early new century than devising a just, effective and humane refugee policy. Feasibility-based arguments doubtless have a role to play here. But such arguments should be used with great economy, judiciously, and with far more sensitivity to the ways in which they may misfire.

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Christian Barry is a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Nicholas Southwood is an Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Moral, Social and Political Theory in the School of Philosophy at the Australian National University in Canberra.

(PHOTOGRAPH: AP / RICHARD MILNES / REX / SHUTTERSTOCK)

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