The following piece began life as a footnote to my previous blog post. However, given that it rapidly metastasized into an essay in its own right, treatment as a separate blog entry was unavoidable. It certainly isn’t for everyone: I spend much of my time trying to conduct some fairly fine-grained analysis, which many people are bound to find rather dull or abstruse. But it does reveal the inevitable complexity of just one element of a much broader issue, and the consequent need for sustained examination.
The seemingly interminable debate in Australia over asylum seekers has thrown up a host of subsidiary disputes. One such dispute concerns the comparative weight of external drivers and internal government policies as determinants of asylum seekers’ behaviour. In my previous post on the UN’s condemnation of boat turnbacks, I indicated that the ALP’s decision to dismantle Australia’s tightly-controlled border protection regime in 2008 ultimately led to a massive influx of boat-borne asylum seekers – and with them, the oft-repeated tragedy of drownings on the high seas (some estimates suggest that about 1,200 asylum seekers ended up dying en route to Australia between 2008 and mid-2013). I don’t claim that this was the intention of the government at the time. Not at all. However, I do claim that there exists a causal connection between Australian government policy and the behaviour of asylum seekers – a connection that can produce fatal results.
This remains a controversial opinion. Some have argued that the claim is an unwarranted assumption, not borne out by the evidence. Many advocates, analysts and observers argue that government policy, or “pull factors”, are at best negligible in their influence on asylum-seeking behaviour.
Various attempts have been made to rebut the idea that Australia’s suite of border protection policies affects asylum seekers’ choices in any way. It has been argued, for instance, that asylum seekers are largely ignorant of a country’s domestic legislation concerning border protection and irregular migration. The conclusion is that people seeking asylum are not (directly) influenced by such policy settings, for their conduct cannot be consciously shaped by things of which they are not aware. Others have asserted that the example of New Zealand – which has long had a more relaxed border protection regime than Australia – demonstrates that “pull factors” aren’t all the determinative. Since NZ hasn’t seen a great deal of change in the number of asylum seekers claiming sanctuary within its borders over the past 15-20 years (despite its being just as stable and prosperous as Australia), some have suggested that a country’s policy response to the issues of irregular migration isn’t terribly significant. Opponents of the “pull factors” theory prefer to see “push factors” – external drivers connected with the state of the international environment, or within individual source countries – as far more influential. Whether this means poverty or persecution, war or civil strife, advocates strongly argue in their favour to explain relative changes in asylum-seeker numbers. They cite both statistical and qualitative evidence to substantiate this basic contention.
Now, I certainly wouldn’t want to dispute the effect that disturbing phenomena such human rights abuses or civil unrest would have on a person’s thinking, or how they might drive someone out of his or her country of origin. That seems to me to be common sense, as does the proposition that the volume of asylum-seeker flows partly reflects the state of human security around the world. But I am far from fully convinced by the positions staked out above, for several reasons.
How Much do Asylum Seekers Really Know?
Regarding the claim that asylum seekers have been greatly unaware of Australia’s policies in this area, the evidence is mixed. On the one hand, Frank Brennan, a Jesuit priest and legal scholar, has written poignantly of Hazara asylum seekers desperately fleeing their homes in Afghanistan, and being shepherded to Australia by a hazily-understood network of people smugglers – all while being completely ignorant of their ultimate destination, and entrusting themselves to those they believed would be able to guarantee passage to safe territory. There is also formal research which suggests that some asylum seekers know very little about their intended destination, if they know anything at all.
On the other hand, anecdotal data exists indicating that many asylum seekers are very much aware – indeed, quite sensitive to – changes in the government’s border protection policies. I have already referred to the outgoing head of the IOM in Indonesia, Mark Getchell, in my previous blog essay. In the related article, he says that both asylum seekers and people smugglers are currently “testing the water” – i.e., they are watching closely for any sign that Australia might relax its policies concerning boat-borne asylum seekers. This is of a piece with other evidence suggesting that asylum seekers aren’t the naïve, ignorant rubes they’re sometimes portrayed to be; many over the years have been monitoring changes in legislation, and have made decisions about their future on the basis of such changes. As journalist, Michael Bachelard, noted a few years ago, some asylum seekers have travelled to Indonesia from their countries of origin “despite full knowledge” of Australian policy in this domain. Why some asylum seekers would travel to Indonesia, knowing they can’t successfully enter Australian territory, is an interesting question. But that some people seeking refuge in our region are often cognizant of the country’s border protection regime seems reasonably clear.
Moreover, even if asylum seekers don’t always appreciate the implications of Australian domestic policy, people smugglers in South-East Asia and elsewhere do. Tightening up the country’s border protection regime – whether by the judicious use of boat turnbacks, or enhanced cooperation with (e.g.) Indonesian authorities – will almost certainly influence the activities of people smugglers, who are the very people asylum seekers rely on to facilitate their passage to Australian territory in the first place. If smugglers realize they can no longer penetrate the “virtual border” erected and maintained by the Australian Navy, or see their networks dismantled by diligent police work, then they have nothing of value to offer the desperate souls they purport to help. Their so-called “business model” eventually collapses, leaving asylum seekers stranded and unable to reach Australian shores. Smugglers, meanwhile, may respond to Australian policy changes by re-directing their activities elsewhere.
The New Zealand “Connection”: A False Analogy
What about the argument that New Zealand’s comparatively relaxed approach to asylum seekers has apparently had no effect on the numbers of such people attempting to enter that country? Does it prove that domestic policy isn’t all that significant in shaping the choices of people in so desperate a situation?
This claim can be dispensed with fairly swiftly. Advocates, such as the online news outlet, Crikey, seem to conflate the two main modes of asylum-seeking into our region: asylum via plane, and asylum sought via boat. To some extent, this is unavoidable, since many reports on asylum-seeker trends do not distinguish between people who entered a territory by plane, and those who entered via some other means (boat, foot, etc.). But in the case of Australia and NZ, the distinction is fairly easy to make, since the latter is highly unlikely — owing to reasons of geography — to receive any asylum seekers arriving by boat. And of course, the issue pertains to such asylum seeking specifically. Isolating boat-borne asylum seekers for the purposes of public policy is not an arbitrary move on the part of the Australian government (whatever one thinks of its basic response). Only one of the two modes of travel has seen people perishing in large numbers. Only one of the two modes of travel relies almost exclusively on deep involvement with criminal networks – involvement that ultimately entrenches and enriches them. And only one of the two modes of travel is effectively unregulated (e.g., passing through unofficial channels and through unofficial access points, carrying people with scanty, or even no, identification), rendering a policy approach that is both open and measured extraordinarily difficult to achieve.
This means that although boat-borne asylum seekers have at times been outweighed by asylum seekers entering the country via plane, the issue is not negligible (pace Crikey). What’s more, during the latter years of the Rudd-Gillard Government, asylum seekers attempting to enter Australian territory via boat far exceeded those arriving by plane. In any case, the key issue concerns the former type of asylum seeking; one needs to compare apples with apples, not with oranges. The volume of asylum applications within NZ territory – the vast majority of which would be made by individuals entering the country via legitimate means – is largely irrelevant to the debate.
Push and Pull Factors: The Weight of Statistics
The Significance of Global Data
Sceptics of the “pull factors” theory have cited statistical data in an effort to undercut whatever explanatory power it might bear. The Crikey piece to which I have already referred provides some interesting – and, one must admit, quite powerful – evidence in this regard. Using regression analysis, the article showed that the relative volume of asylum seekers arriving in Australia between 1994 and 2008 largely reflected global trends. As the writer of the piece argued at the time, “the relative patterns through time of boat arrivals in Australia is itself a function of broader global asylum seeker trends”.
The United Nations’ own statistical data would seem to confirm this, at least on the surface: in a 2011 UNHCR report concerning asylum-seeker trends, author Vivian Tan said that there had been a “dramatic drop” in the number of people claiming asylum around the world during the previous decade. Certain year-on-year differences tell substantially the same story. In 2006, for example, there were 11% fewer asylum claims globally than there were in 2005 (596,000 as against 674,000). It’s also worth observing that the UK-based Migration Observatory showed that the United Kingdom experienced a sharp decline in asylum applications between 2002 and 2005, in much the same way that Australia did during that time. As far as I am aware, the UK did not introduce a raft of restrictive policies, aimed at deterring asylum-seeking behaviour. That fact could be construed as evidence that the strength of a country’s border protection regime does not, in the final analysis, play a very significant role in determining the volume of irregular migration: if the UK and Australia both experienced sharp falls in asylum-seeker numbers, despite adopting different policies towards those looking for sanctuary, then what does this say about the relative strength of “push” and “pull” factors? As a consequence of such information, Crikey concluded that “pull factors” (i.e., government policies) are “simply swamped…” by changes in the global environment (with the implication that domestic policy can do very little, one way or the other, about general asylum-seeker flows).
But Wait a Minute…
The apparent potency of the above data, however, belies a more complicated, more ambiguous, reality. Whilst it’s true that the numbers of people seeking asylum globally fell throughout the 2000s, it is also the case that the Australian experience reveals some subtle (though nonetheless significant) differences. In its report analysing asylum-seeking trends between 2000 and 2002, the UNHCR noted that there was a reduction of 5.4% in the volume of asylum seekers in the 37 industrialised countries it surveyed. This was at about the same time that Australia began to experience a corresponding decline in such numbers. However, the same report also observed that the reduction in Australia had been far steeper, at approximately 50% – almost ten times the rate of decline experienced by the industrialised world as a whole (pp.2-3). Favourable changes in the global environment are insufficient as an explanation; something beyond such shifts would be needed to make this fall completely intelligible. This, of course, was around the same time that the Howard Government dramatically restricted Australia’s border protection regime, in an effort to halt the flow of asylum-seeker boats. It’s hard to believe that the imposition of such policies didn’t have any effect on asylum-seeker numbers coming to Australia. Indeed, as academic evidence cited below suggests, policies instituted by the Howard Government at the time contributed materially to subsequent declines.
Similarly, even though industrialised countries around the world experienced a general fall in applications for asylum during the 2000s, we should note that Australia was, at times, an outlier. Between 2009 and 2010, for instance, the UNHCR reported that the industrialised countries surveyed showed a general fall of 5%, even though Australia experienced a 33% increase in asylum claims (p.6). This coincides with increases across the life of the Rudd-Gillard Government, and comes only two years after the ALP abolished the Howard-era laws composing Australia’s previous border protection regime. As we shall see (cf. linked graph, below), the number of boat-borne asylum seekers swiftly rose from almost nothing in 2008 to well over 5,000 by 2010. Again, it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that domestic policy and asylum flows bore a causal link.
A final point on the significance of international data. It’s worth observing differences between Australia and the rest of the industralised world in the years after 2013. Whilst global asylum applications rose at around that time, boat arrivals to Australia continued to flatline. In its 2014 report on global asylum trends, the UNHCR stated that asylum applications within the industralised world had risen by 45%. Europe, North America, and Japan/South Korea all saw sharp increases of between 40%-65%. Australia, however, saw a fall of 23% in asylum arrivals (p.8). Not coincidentally, this was just 12 months after the introduction of a tougher border protection regime under the then-Abbott Government.
The Regional Experience
To this bevy of international data may be added statistical evidence drawn from both Australia and Indonesia. Together, they appear to lend further weight to the notion that domestic policy exerts some power over patterns of asylum seeking. Leaving one’s country of origin, it must be remembered, is only half the journey; one also has to find a safe harbour (as it were). And it is here that I’d argue Australia’s border protection policies have either expanded or constrained asylum seekers’ choices. Not in all cases, of course; but the anecdotal evidence I cited above does indicate that many asylum seekers – and certainly all people smugglers wanting to ferry their human cargo to Australia – calibrate their decisions with alterations in the country’s domestic policy landscape.
Take the following graph, which plots the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers between the mid-1970s and 2016. As one can see from the chart (tracking calendar-year figures), the numbers slowed markedly after 2001 – around the time the Howard Government introduced a panoply of responses designed to deter such activity. In 2008, the Rudd Labor Government, in a fit of moral hubris, all but dismantled that regime; after a brief lag period, the numbers began to rise again, and by 2013, the country had received approximately 50,000 asylum seekers on scores of vessels (including over 20,000 in that year alone). However, a change of government in September 2013 saw a precipitous drop in asylum seeker flows – one that began in the dying days of the second Rudd administration – as Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition implemented its highly militarised “Operation Sovereign Borders”.
These three inflection points – 2002, 2008, and 2013 – imply an intimate connection between changes to Australia’s policy settings and the relative volume of boat-borne asylum seekers. If one only had access to data pertaining to that first of those watershed periods, then it might be possible, as the Crikey piece does, to argue that domestic figures simply reflect international trends. But unless successive Australian governments somehow managed to alter the country’s border protection regime at just those moments when global flows of asylum-seeking either rose or fell, then domestic policy changes likely do exert a degree of influence over the decisions individual asylum seekers make. And whilst correlation does not always equal causation, the parallels in this case are uncanny — leading me to conclude that there is some kind of causal link. Even Robert Manne, who has been harshly critical of Australia’s border protection policies over the years, effectively concedes that government policy has significantly affected the rate of (boat-borne) asylum seeker flows into the country. His view seems to have been partly formed by the weight of this kind of statistical evidence.
Figures concerning asylum-seeker numbers in Indonesia (which has usually functioned as the main staging-post for people hoping to reach Australia by boat) complement this data-driven picture. Back in 2012, for example, IRIN News Agency – a not-for-profit humanitarian media outlet – examined the issue of asylum seekers arriving in Indonesia since 2009. The agency reported that there had been a “spike” in those numbers, “from 385 in 2008 to 3,230 in 2009, and 3,905 in 2010”, as reported by the UNHCR. The key watershed moment here lies between 2008 and 2009, when the Rudd Government’s fateful decision to relax Australia’s border laws was made. It was at that time that Indonesia saw a ten-fold increase in the number of (registered) asylum seekers within its borders. I’d argue that those increases can be attributed, at least in part, to the changes wrought by the Rudd Government: as news of those shifts trickled out, would-be asylum seekers and people smuggling networks attempted to take advantage of the new regime. Again, correlation and causation aren’t always well acquainted with each other; however, when this data is combined with statistics cited earlier, the proposition that domestic government policy can shape an asylum seeker’s behaviour – by way of either encouragement or deterrence – takes on a new cogency.
What Can Formal Analyses Tell Us?
Evidence like this is unavoidably probabilistic, of course. But the consistent parallels between alterations in border protection policy, and a shift in the number of (boat-borne) asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia, are striking. This is of a piece with formal research efforts, which have captured both domestic and international experiences in this domain. The aforementioned UNHCR report concerning asylum applications between 2000 and 2002 admitted that government policy “can affect asylum-seeker flows”. It went on to cite the example of Spain, where the imposition of stricter visa controls for Colombian asylum seekers saw applications from that country fall by 56% during the period in question (see p.3). The report also highlighted similar declines in applications within Spanish territory by people from Sierra Leone, largely as a result of similar measures).
Academic studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, Eric Neumayer, a professor of development studies at the London School of Economics, analysed refugee flows to Europe in the 1980s and 1990s. He found a number of obvious “push factors” at work (war, civil strife, persecution, and so forth), which conspired to drive people out of their native lands in search of refuge. Simultaneously, though, he concluded that the “share going to individual European countries [was] influenced by [the] specific characteristics of those countries” – among which were more lenient policies concerning asylum seekers. Economist, Tim Hatton, suggested much the same thing after analysing the Australian context. The ANU academic estimated that a tougher policy approach on the part of the Howard Government explained about 30% of the decline in arrival numbers in Australia between 1997 and 2006. He did not deny the inevitable power of external drivers, but found that internal policies also worked to shape the behaviour of asylum seekers (incidentally, evidence like this undercuts the assertion that desperate asylum seekers simply aren’t deterred by a country’s border protection regime, even if they are aware of such a regime in the first place. At least in some cases, they plainly are deterred).
Surveying the Global Situation: A Case-Study
So much for the quantitative evidence; what of the qualitative evidence? Some observers appeal to specific phenomena which reflect the state of the global security environment (i.e., “push factors”). In so doing, they purport to substantially explain the ebb and flow of asylum-seeker movements. But these, too, may rest on fragile assumptions, a selective use of data, or inadequate analysis. John Menadue’s article on the issue is a case-in-point. In that piece, the former public servant asserts that the fall in asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia from 2002 was not due to the Howard Government’s suite of border protection policies – off-shore processing, boat turnbacks, and increased cooperation with Indonesian authorities – but rather to propitious changes in the global environment. Menadue cites the War in Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban (October 2001-) as an example: the US-led intervention did eventually see several million Afghans return to their war-ravaged country. He concludes that events like these, and not domestic border policy, were largely responsible for general declines in people seeking asylum here. Menadue makes other gestures in this direction as he seeks to undercut the notion that Australian government policy can affect asylum-seeker flows, one way or the other.
I have no wish to deny the truth of Menadue’s claims, at least in narrow terms; the Afghan War and the Taliban’s (initial) demise have indeed exerted some influence on international migration patterns by making a return to Afghanistan more attractive for many locals. Nevertheless, several telling observations may be made in relation to Menadue’s argument. First, he, like others, simply conflates boat-borne asylum seekers with all asylum seekers (regardless of their means of entry). But as I have already noted, the question concerns the causal connection – if any – between Australian government policy and the undulating volume of boat-borne asylum seekers specifically. The numerical evidence I cited earlier provides a fairly compelling picture of just such a connection.
Second, there is reason to believe that in the case of some national and ethnic groups, domestic policy settings may have indeed been decisive – or at least highly effective – in shaping the decisions of would-be asylum seekers and their ersatz migration agents. Menadue (perhaps unintentionally) ignores this evidence. Iraq is a particularly revealing case study. Menadue cites the so-called “Surge” in that country – a massive build-up of American troops during and after 2007, aimed at stabilising the fragile security situation there – as a partial driver of refugee and asylum seeker flows at that time. However, he fails to deal properly with other pertinent evidence.
An examination of what occurred, in both Australia and Iraq, after 2008 will make the point clearer. I have already noted the significant increase in boat arrivals to Australia between 2008-09 and 2013, many of which contained Iraqi nationals. Such was the volume that in 2012, the academic, Helen Ware, could write that Iraq was still one of the top three source countries for so-called “boat people” (the others being Afghanistan and Iran). Interestingly, this increase coincided with significant improvements in the security situation in Iraq. As the Centre for Strategic and International Studies has observed, “US sources estimated in early January 2010 that the overall number of security incidents in Iraq had decreased by 83% over the past two years…IED attacks in Iraq decreased nearly 80%…and car-bomb and suicide-vest attacks had decreased by 92%” (p.4). Iraq was hardly a model of peace and stability by 2010, to be sure; nevertheless, the country witnessed a significant fall in violent incidents as the sectarian strife of the previous few years began to subside. The relative declines in the number of Iraqi asylum seekers globally seems to reflect this: the UNHCR, for example, revealed that in 2012, the number of asylum seekers from Iraq fell to less than 20,000 — down from a figure of approximately 40,000 four years earlier (p.18). The report suggested that improved security was in part responsible for this shift. And yet, Australia saw a relative increase in the number of Iraqi nationals seeking aslyum via boat during this period (of course, the overall “pool” of Iraqi asylum seekers remained quite large during this time. The point, however, is that whilst global figures fell, Australian figures rose. This is counter-intuitive, at least according to an analysis guided by the “push factors” theory).
Thus, the volume of Iraqi asylum seekers entering the country began to rise steeply from 2009 – as part of a general rise in boat-borne asylum seekers attempting to enter the country – despite material improvements in Iraq’s security situation. Again, if the “push factors” hypothesis is as strong as advocates assert, then it stands to reason that we should have witnessed the reverse of what actually occurred, at least in the case of potential asylum seekers from Iraq. We should have seen, in other words, relatively low numbers in the few years after the American “Surge” campaign, when the country entered a period of comparative stability. The fact that we didn’t leads me to conclude that external factors were not always the only – or even the main – driver of the number of boat-borne asylum seekers entering Australia. Something else, it seems, was at work; the only other viable candidate is Australian government policy.
This brings me back to the original point at issue – namely, whether government policy can affect asylum-seeking behaviour. If my analysis has any merit, then it would appear that so-called “pull factors” can affect one’s pattern of decision-making, and do so substantially. In the case of the Howard and Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison Governments, it has led to a reduction in the number of boat-borne asylum seekers. In the case of the Rudd-Gillard Labor Government, on the other hand, it produced a dramatic increase in such numbers, accompanied by a consequent rise in deaths at sea.
 To be fair, the Crikey piece later concedes that there may be some divergence in numbers based on mode of entry (i.e., airborne vs. boat-borne asylum seekers). But if that is so, then what is the point of citing NZ in the first place? In what way is it a relevant comparator if one is only interested in asylum seekers who travel by boat (of whom NZ receives very few, if any)?
 A certain level of regulation would require any government to at least approximate some of the policies that have so far been used by Australian authorities; the alternative is simply hoping that overall asylum-seeker flows would be moderated by a relatively benign international environment.
 We should bear in mind that the Crikey piece was only written in 2009. As such, it would have been impossible for the author to take into account the longer-term implications associated with the Rudd Government’s abandonment of Howard-era policies in 2008. These were yet to be fully felt a mere 12 months later. And of course, not having the power of time travel, the author would have been unable to respond to the significance – if any – of the Abbott Government’s changes in this domain in 2013.