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Op-Ed

Australia’s Draconian Refugee Policy is Built on Myths

Jane McAdam

Editor’s Note: This opinion on Australia’s asylum policy was originally published by The Guardian.

At the heart of Australia’s hardline approach to asylum seekers is a fundamental misconception – the assumption that draconian measures will deter desperate people. And on top of such flawed logic many a politically expedient myth has been built.

Research shows that the details of a country’s asylum policy, including deterrence mechanisms, have little influence on an asylum seeker’s choice of destination.

Hazaras from Afghanistan, for example, told British researchers that they understood the risks of engaging people smugglers and travelling by boat to Australia, but given the threat of persecution by the Taliban and general insecurity in their own region, “the cost benefit analysis clearly favours clandestine migration.”

Since every choice an asylum seeker makes involves risk, it is unsurprising that threats of detention or offshore processing don’t necessarily deter in the way policymakers might anticipate.

We also know this from our experience of the previous policies on which today’s harsh responses are based. As former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser has observed, “No amount of deterrence can match the terror from which those who are genuine refugees are fleeing.”

But alarmed Australians have another myth to turn to – the myth that most asylum seekers arriving by boat are not genuine refugees anyway, but economic migrants looking for a better life. The facts simply do not bear this out. Statistics published by the Immigration Department showed that over 93% of boat arrivals in 2011-12 were Convention refugees.

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