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Rudd's refugee solution: politically brilliant, morally bankrupt

By Mirko Bagaric - posted Monday, 22 July 2013

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Papua New Guinea refugee plan is politically brilliant, but morally bankrupt. The Greens and refugee advocates who are now lamenting the plan have no basis for complaint. It was their blind worship of the discriminatory and inhumane Refugee's Convention which has facilitated Rudd now sending all boat people to Papua New Guinea.

The torrent of boat arrivals (15,000 already this year) will now completely stop. Australian has no refugee producing neighbours. Boat arrivals are strategic travellers who select Australia because it is an opulent country which has an about 90% settlement rate of boat arrivals. They come to Australia rather than other first world countries because we have more to offer them.

The Papua New Guinea solution means they can never settle here. Rational self-interest will direct them elsewhere. Rudd has solved the boat people political crisis.


But ethically, the solution will take a big toll on the national psyche. The Papua New Guinea plan means that while potential boat arrivals are precluded from settling in Australia, the most mobile and affluent of asylum seekers, the thousands that come to Australian annually by plane, will still be permitted to settle here if they have a valid refugee claim. Moreover, the plan will do nothing to assist those most suffering in the world – the tens of millions housed in refugee camps.

How did Australia get itself into such a humanistic mess? Easy: it stems from the typical herd like worship by the Greens and the refugee lobby to symbols and slogans over achieving good outcomes. In this case, the focus of their homage is the Refugees Convention 1951.

The Convention aimed to deal with people movement following the ruins of World War II. The world has changed markedly since then. The Convention hasn't. Its application to contemporary mass human movement suffering results in discriminatory, arbitrary and tokenistic outcomes.

It is discriminatory because it only applies to people outside their country of origin. Whether a Syrian national is a metre inside or outside the Syrian border has no normative correlation to their entitlement to assistance.

The Convention is arbitrary because it only assists people at risk of persecution for defined reasons, namely their race, religion or political opinion. People suffering because they are on the verge of starvation or at risk of being caught in the cross-fire of a civil war are no less entitled to help.

The Convention is tokenistic because it only requires countries to not send back refugees to their country of origin – it does not require them to provide settlement. And, hence Rudd exploited this deficiency by arranging to send all boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea.


I have been arguing that the only humanistic solution to the refugee crisis is to withdraw from the Convention and put in place an overarching framework for settling the most needy people in the world.

There are 43 million people in refugee camps around the world. All of these are more destitute than boat people. I know this because mobility equals relative affluence. People in refugee camps should get priority processing over boat people.

I know this is fair because if all of the eligible pool of refugee candidates could be consulted on the basis upon which refugees were settled by wealthy countries like Australia, the last definition they would come up with one is one that gave priority to people that had the means to travel to their country of choice.

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About the Author

Mirko Bagaric, BA LLB(Hons) LLM PhD (Monash), is a Croatian born Australian based author and lawyer who writes on law and moral and political philosophy. He is dean of law at Swinburne University and author of Australian Human Rights Law.

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