The aid sector gasped this week at the news that the Australian government would divert $375 million of foreign aid away from helping the world's poorest people towards meet the costs of supporting asylum seekers in Australia. This decision, perversely, makes Australia the third largest recipient of Australian aid.
No right minded individual would deny that many of those who seek asylum in Australia are acutely vulnerable, and have every right to be supported to access services and, if found to be refugees, assisted as they transition to a new and safer life in Australia. This is Australia's obligation under international law. But Australia can afford to meet its international obligations without reneging from existing commitments to the world's poor. We are a rich nation, we can afford to do both.
People who flee their host countries for Australia do so for a range of reasons. Some are fleeing political or religious persecution, and some are simply seeking a better life for themselves or their families. It's hardly necessary to describe the difference that the funds spent on immigration detention could make to families across much of the developing world whose lives are torn apart year after year by conflict, drought, typhoons, floods and other disasters, or to those who live in chronic poverty and who are unable to feed their families, access healthcare or send their children to school. To provide just one example, in Afghanistan, $3.5 million (roughly the cost of keeping about 30 people in immigration detention in Australia for a year) would be enough to recruit and train enough health workers to provide community-based healthcare to the entire population.
It's been pointed out that the OECD guidelines allow donor countries to spend a portion of their aid budgets on supporting asylum seekers and refugees from developing countries. The Australian Government has pointed out that the US, Canada and France all spend sizeable sums on hosting refugees. This is true, but it doesn't make it ok for Australia, for a number of reasons.
First, Australia is a wealthy country with an insignificant refugee population. In 2010, in a list of countries ranked according to the size of their refugee populations, Australia came 47th. Second, Australia's particular asylum seeker policy is exorbitantly expensive. The 2011-12 budget papers put the cost of holding 7,000 people in immigration detention in Australia at $800m. More than $100,000 per person. It's fundamentally wrong that the world's poorest people – who should rightly be the recipients of Australian aid – should pay the price. Third, while some other countries do report the costs of hosting refugees and asylum seekers as foreign aid, it remains a very small portion of aid budgets. In 2010, the total proportion of foreign aid allocated to 'in-donor refugee costs', globally, was 2.5 per cent. The highest spenders were the US, Switzerland, Sweden and France, all of whom host significantly more refugees than Australia (almost 800,000 between them in 2010). For Australia, the proposed $375m would take the proportion of Australian aid spent on 'in-donor refugee costs' to 7%. Based on 2010 figures, that'd be about $17,000 per refugee.
The purpose of Australian aid is to help people overcome poverty, says the Australian Government's aid policy. That same policy recognises that 'for more than half a century, Australian governments of both political traditions have supported the Australian international aid program', and that 'there is a deep national interest in this continuing to be the case in the future.' It aims to save lives, promote opportunities for all, promote sustainable economic development, promote effective governance, and respond to disasters. And it commits to building on these achievements for the future and to making sure our aid program 'makes a real difference for the 1.4 billion members of the human family living in poverty.' That is, on less than US$1.25 a day.
Australia's 2011-2012 budget recognises that reducing poverty is in our 'national security and national economic interest'. It recognises that 'poverty breeds instability and extremism in our region and globally', and 'creates conditions that lead to more refugees, as people flee from violence or hardship.' If aid reduces violence and economic hardship, it also reduces the incentive for people to leave their homes and families and seek refuge in other countries. Put simply, well targeted aid reduces refugee flows.
The proposed diversion of $375m from the foreign aid budget makes little sense economically, runs counter to the aims of Australia's own aid policy and runs the risk of damaging Australia's international reputation as the newest member of the UN Security Council.
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