FOR TEN YEARS I lived and worked in Canada. It’s a funny feeling, coming home. After years of living overseas the ex-expat (to coin a phrase) notices not the things that have changed, like the cafés, but the things that have stayed the same, like the politics. Ten years on and the news is weirdly familiar: a second airport for Sydney, high-speed rail for Canberra and asylum seekers invading us from the sea. Planes, trains and boats; it’s Groundhog Day in Australia.
I began to write this essay because I was so frustrated by the lack of clear information around asylum seekers. I wanted to clarify as well as I could a debate I couldn’t make sense of. But seeing the problem afresh, the hysteria that surrounds it suddenly reminded me of a political debate from ten or twenty years ago. The asylum problem now is like the drug problem then. Debate is framed in a moral language that excites a crisis completely unrelated to the dimensions of the problem. The asylum seeker, like the drug addict, is depicted as a piteous victim who must be locked up for their own good; the ‘trafficker’ or ‘smuggler’ is considered a villain against whom no action is too harsh. Policy settings in both cases depend on a zero-tolerance approach built around hugely expensive law enforcement strategies. The underlying assumption is that if only our laws are severe enough, people’s behaviour will change. But the prohibition of drugs and the prohibition of boats make the same mistake. Supply-side responses to demand-side problems often fail to make real inroads into the underlying problems. Indeed, the case of drug policies shows that sometimes harsh law enforcement does not merely fail to stop the problem. It can actually make matters worse; much worse. Raising the stakes and driving people underground creates more profit, causes more deaths, and leads to more suffering. But rational arguments have little purchase in a climate fashioned by false assumptions as to what law can achieve, and a wilful blindness as to its unintended consequences.
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