On 3 February, the Australian High Court ruled the offshore detention centres to be lawful institutions, in line with a country’s sovereign right to determine how to treat asylum seekers on its territory. The High Court’s decision is significant as it is will influence the Australian Government's actions towards asylum seekers and refugees in future, including the 12,000 Syrian refugees Australia has promised to receive.

Migration is a complex human phenomenon with generational impact on both sending, transiting and receiving countries. When making decisions related to migration, a state needs to consider various factors including national security, demographic challenges, transport and social services, economic growth and ethnic diversity, as well as public opinion.

But before elaborating on this complexity, let’s get the terminology right. Many discussions of migration demonstrate some serious misconceptions and confusion. This lack of understanding can have serious consequences. It can mislead public opinion and result in short sighted decisions in an area of policy that is vital for for Australia’s long-term economic and social future.

First, not all migrants are immigrants. Migrants tend to move and keep moving. Immigrants, on the other hand, have temporary or permanent residence. The majority of immigrants who apply for residence do so for economic reasons. Others cite family or humanitarian grounds. Refugees have temporary residence on humanitarian grounds and are a subset of a much larger group.

Secondly, not all asylum seekers are granted refugee status. Asylum seekers fear persecution in the country they've left and desire temporary shelter and protection. If their applications are successful, they become refugees with temporary residency status. In 2013-4, 72,162 persons applied for Australia’s humanitarian visas. Around 13,750 individuals and their families were granted this status. States who are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention must comply with the principle of non-refoulement (no return to the country where refugees fear persecution), and provide humanitarian assistance to asylum seekers. Australia has been a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its Protocol since 1954 and 1973, respectively.

Thirdly, asylum seekers and refugees are not criminals detained in state sanctioned institutions. They seek help on humanitarian, as opposed to legal grounds. In contrast, people smuggling is a criminal act, defined in the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime and its Protocol on people smuggling to which Australia is also a party.

When refugee smuggling takes place, as is the case with most boat arrivals in Australia, two principles of international law compete against each other: on the one hand, protecting refugees on international humanitarian grounds, and on the other, defending national borders as the sovereign right of the state. In the High Court’s decision, border protection interests came out ahead of humanitarian concerns. This was, however, just one round in a long running saga where the influence of the various considerations wax and wane.

Both the Department of Immigration and Border Protection and the Department of Social Services acknowledge Australia's humanitarian obligations, saying 'As a member of the international community, Australia shares responsibility for protecting these refugees and resolving refugee situations'. So do church leaders and human rights groups. However,  human rights can be traded off against other national interests. Even in Article 13 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the right to mobility only exists for part of the migration process. It only defines rights to leave and return to one’s country of origin. There is no human right to reside in a country not your own. That is a sovereign right of the hosting country. Humanitarian and human rights principles often come out second best when they come up against national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Those making the case for asylum seekers to reside in Australian territory, and not in offshore detention centres, need to make a rational, as opposed to a simply moral, case. This requires an understanding of the complexity of migration and its uncertainty and unpredictability, as well as its often overlooked potential to contribute to Australia’s economy and society.

Migration has multiple causes and consequences. It can be both positive and negative for the hosting society. The media tends to focus on the negative, with coverage that dwells on the potential threats migrants pose to national security, economic advancement, and cultural identity. The Boston, Bangkok and Jakarta bombings exacerbated this trend. Stories about migrants bringing in radical ideas and networks, taking local jobs, raising housing prices, increasing crime rates, and spreading diseases are standard fare in today’s media.

What is not often highlighted, and what should be, is that most migrants, especially refugees, are more likely than not to be healthy and educated individuals of working age. In evolutionary biological terms, they’re the fittest survivors, who have outlived wars, violence and poverty. They have immense potential for a country’s economy. This 2014 OECD report found migrants accounted for 47% of the increase in the workforce in the US and 70% in Europe over the past ten years. They fill important niches in both fast-growing and declining sectors of the economy. The report also concluded that migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits, boost the working-age population, and contribute to human capital development of receiving countries.

In Australia, the projected population by 2050 is 38 million. The Migration Council Australia finds that migration will have added 15.7% to the workforce participation rate, 21.9% to after tax real wages for low-skilled workers, and 5.9% in GDP per capita growth.

Modern Australia is built by migrants. We’re all migrants or children of migrants. If relied solely on the current fertility rate, Australia would not be able to sustain its current global rankings. We shouldn't talk about our future prosperity and success solely in terms of GDP growth. It is also about resilience, diversity and adaptability, all of which are needed to maintain comparative advantage in a rapidly changing world, and all of which migration brings.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Takver