Dr Khalid Koser is a Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow and Deputy Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
As I write, divers are ‘unpacking a wall of bodies’ from the hull of a smuggler’s trawler that sank off Lampedusa last week, with 297 people so far confirmed dead. In response, the European Commission is calling for search and rescue patrols to intercept migrant boats to be stepped up.
I could change three words (and reduce the number) in the above paragraph and use it to start a post I will write when (not if) a boat next sinks near Christmas Island. Yet in the years I have been commenting on boat arrivals, smuggling, and asylum in Australia, I have consistently found that the argument which is least convincing to Australian audiences is that other parts of the world face similar challenges.
I’ve often asked Australians why they resist comparison (and whether this is specific to migration or applies to other policy areas too). Here are the three most common responses.
First, Australia is geographically unique. True, but how and why does this matter? Some people have spoken about a siege mentality when Australia’s relative isolation is breached. Others, by contrast, have stressed that as an advanced economy (and signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention) it is the closest magnet for half of the world’s population. My own perspective is that geography matters because until very recently it has protected Australia from significant uncontrolled migration. Australia hasn’t learned to stomach irregular migration like Europe or the US, but it will.
Second, what happens in other parts of the world has no relevance for Australia (partly because of its geographical isolation). Set aside something called globalisation, and what this perspective also underestimates is the global reach of migration and migrant smuggling. It is thought that almost all the 500 or so migrants on the Lampedusa boat were Eritrean, while a recent SBS investigation has revealed a major smuggling network between Eritrea and Indonesia with Australia as a final destination.
Third, cynics (or perhaps realists) have told me that adopting a global perspective would risk exposing just how disproportionate the response of Australian people and politicians is. Certainly, more irregular migrants (both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the national population) arrive in other industrialised countries (especially in Europe and the US) than Australia. What's more, the proportion of the world’s asylum seekers and refugees arriving in Australia is tiny compared to the global total, and more migrants die in transit elsewhere. Yet in few other countries has the issue become so obsessive.
The shame is that in my experience, this tendency has also infiltrated Australian policy. Only the enlightened few apparently understand the relevance of international comparative research for informing Australian policy. Lessons to learn from how other parts of the world respond to irregular migration (and boat arrivals) are systematically being ignored. Australia is also missing an opportunity to share some of its more innovative policies with other countries.