23 July 2013

How many will die if we do stop the boats?

Will stopping the boats really save lives? That seems to be the one argument that gets any traction outside of redneck circles, but does it hold up?

Over the past decade around 35,000 asylum seekers have come to Australia by sea (about half in the past 12 months). Figures on how many have died at sea are obviously not so certain, but the number I hear most often is around 1,200. So, the argument goes, if no boats had come in the past 10 years twelve hundred lives would have been saved.

But what about those 35,000 who made it here? The government admits that up to 90% of them are genuine refugees. A refugee is a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution, which includes a fear of death. Obviously not all of those 31,500 genuine refugees would have been killed if they had stayed put, but even if 10% of them faced such a risk that would still be more than twice the number lost at sea.

I am speculating, of course. But my point is that the argument about drownings at sea ignores the total picture of what is going on. The main problem is the way the question is put: stopping the boats? Who cares about boats? They are only pieces of wood. It's what happens to the people that matters.

If we stop the boats, we stop the refugees. If we stop the refugees, some of them, I don't know how many, will die. Others will be tortured or imprisoned. It won't happen on our TV screens, but it will happen.

I don't know if the "PNG solution" will stop the boats. It seems many people have forgotten that a key element of Howard's "Pacific solution" was that the people sent to Nauru were told they would never be resettled in Australia. In the end, most of them were resettled here or in New Zealand. I suspect Tony Abbott is right when he describes the latest plan as held together by blue tac and sticky tape and only intended to last until the election.

Whether it works or not, it won't save lives. It just doesn't add up.