In my earlier posts in this series on the migration-security nexus in Australia and Asia (see part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4), I’ve identified human insecurity as the major source of migration from Asia to Australia, and explained some commonly held human security concerns, or rather myths, about migrants in Australia. This is what I call a spiral model of human security and migration. It is fundamentally people’s security concerns that create mass movements across national borders.

The human security framework is broader than a national security one as it focuses on the security of peoples (groups of people), as opposed to borders that are created and maintained by states. This does not mean that national security is not important, but it does suggest protecting the security of people who reside both in our country and in neighbouring countries should be an aim of  border security and recognised as being in the national interest.

In 2011-2013, 25,492 people who arrived in illegal boats sought asylum in Australia. In September 2013 the Abbott government, that campaigned to 'Stop the Boats' and framed those arrivals as a border security threat, introduced Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) which put the military in control of asylum operations. As a result of the operation, the number of illegal boat arrivals in Australia fell significantly. Furthermore, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (DIBP) granted protection visas to 4,995 illegal maritime arrivals (IMAs) in 2012-3, but that dropped to just 545 in 2013-4 due to a cap on protection visa grants that came into effect in March 2014 and Ministerial direction 57 that put boat arrivals last in the queue for protection visa application processing.

These are examples of what securitisation scholars like Ole Waever or Barry Buzan  call ‘extraordinary measures’ that result from the securitisation of migration. They are extraordinary as governments use extra-legal and political measures in response to what they perceive to be an imminent threat to the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The UN doesn’t ban these extraordinary measures but urges states to use them only when they are necessary, proportionate, and in an ad hoc manner.

One of the extraordinary measures taken by the Australian government allegedly involved paying Indonesian smugglers to turn back boats. A media report suggested six people convicted for people smuggling by an Indonesian court claimed to have received cash payment from Australian officials. The government would neither confirm nor deny the report.

There is no public discussion about whether such payments are justified in order to stop the boats. According to the 2016 Lowy Institute Poll, 63% agree that ‘stopping the boats means that Australia can take in more refugees through UN processes’. It is difficult to tell whether this means the public supports the turn back policy or the UN asylum system. What is clear is that Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB) and offshore detention centres are considered so sensitive and politically divisive that politicians avoid talking about them. As Jenny Hayward-Jones observed, immigration, offshore processing in general (and the Manus detention in particular, recently ruled illegal by the PNG High Court), were barely discussed by the two major parties in the recent election campaign.

What Australia stopped were not just the boats, but refugees who were in the boats, and their deaths. The government claimed that OSB helped prevent deaths at sea and certainly the Australian Border Deaths Database maintained by researchers at Monash University shows a sharp decline in deaths since 2013.

However,  more could have been done for human security after the boats were stopped. Australia placed those saved lives in not so safe offshore facilities. PNG, Nauru and Cambodia all have weak rule of law, poor human rights records and inadequate standards of living. There have already been numerous cases and allegations of human rights violations including rape and child abuse.

The offshore processing system is opposed by many Australians. It has damaged Australia’s international reputation and its relations with neighbouring countries.

Furthermore, running offshore detention centres seems highly cost-ineffective. According to a senate report, it costs $1 billion a year—more than five times the budget off all of the operations of the UNHCR across Southeast Asia (The government paid $55 million to set up a refugee camp in Cambodia. As at May 2016, three of the five refugees Cambodia received from Australia had chosen to return to Iran and Myanmar).

Migration management needs a whole-of-government as it involves multi-dimensional considerations ranging across national and human security. In previous decades Australia has successfully managed migration programs that promoted economic growth and encouraged the development of a dynamic society.

But for immigration to achieve such long term goals, it needs to look beyond short-term border protection; it must have a long-term vision for better human security in the region as a whole. The long-term consequences of offshore detention centres can be detrimental for human development. As of February 2016, 1,379 people were detained on Nauru and Manus Island. As discussed, the present costs of maintaining these people are high but the spiralling impact of an unskilled, unhealthy population created by Australian government policy in our immediate neighbours may cost future generations much more. 

Finally, immigration policy has a tremendous implication on who and what we are as a country. Australia was built by the hard labour by migrants: in the early years of white settlement many were convicts, forced to be here. Later decades brought many refugees, also  forced to move here. Australia is known to the world as a full-grown mature democracy that respects human rights, fundamental freedoms and equal opportunities. These noble values of Australia should be upheld, for the benefit not just of those living now but for future generations who will be affected by today’s policies.

Photo by Scott Fisher/Getty Image