It is very concerning to read in this article that Liberal Party leader, Malcolm Turnbull, has said that “certainly, the reintroduction of temporary protection visas (TPVs) should be high on the agenda.”  Even if you couldn’t care less about refugees, bringing back TPVs is the last thing we should be doing.

Mind you, while Kevin Rudd’s comment in the same article that “The question of calibrating the country’s response to the assets that we need in the air-sea gap to our north — that is where the critical business lies” doesn’t leave me as concerned, it does leave me totally confused about what he is saying.

No matter what your view on refugees and asylum seekers, the first thing everyone should recognise is that there are no simple solutions. The UNHCR estimates that at the end of 2007, there were over 11 million refugees around the world and 26 million people affected by conflict-induced internal displacement.  Unless someone can find a way to bring about that elusive goal of world peace, no combination of ‘solutions’ will ever eliminate the problem.

The second thing to recognise is that, however much of a problem anyone living in an industrialised country may believe refugees to be, you can be certain the refugees themselves find it a much much bigger problem.

But whatever the answers might be to reducing the need for refugees to risk their lives by getting on a boat to Australia, one ‘solution’ which we know for sure doesn’t work is Temporary Protection Visas.

The evidence is clear. From soon after Temporary Protection Visas were introduced in November 1999, the numbers of refugees arriving in boats increased dramatically. An even bigger problem was that the proportion of women and child in the dangerous boats also increased dramatically – a direct result of the enforced family separation inherent in TPVs, which prohibited refugees from being able to sponsor their families to Australia, and also prevented them from leaving to country to visit (or in many cases, to search for) their wives and children.  A tragic example of this is the composition of the 353 dead from the sinking of the SIEV X – 146 children, 142 women, 65 men.

Even if you wish to ignore the enormous stress and uncertainty which TPVs created for refugees in Australia, the fact is that TPVs were also totally counter-productive for the Australian economy and community.  By increasing the trauma experienced by refugees, impeding their ability to access support, training and even English language classes, and creating enormous uncertainty about their future, it made it far harder for them to properly settle and integrate into our society and workforce – harming our productivity and increasing the cost to the taxpayer.

Asylum seekers arriving by boat are not a ‘security’ issue in any logical sense of the term. In the 2007-08 financial year, close to 12 million people arrived in Australia from overseas for one reason or another. Almost none of them would have had their health, security and personal histories examined more closely than asylum seekers arriving by boat. Asylum seekers do not try to sneak into the country undetected, they announce themselves on arrival to ask for protection, so they do not ‘threaten our borders’ in any meaningful sense of the term.

It also wouldn’t hurt to remind ourselves that many things about refugees settling in Australia are a benefit to us, not a “problem”.  There is plenty of evidence to show that refugees of all types have provided long-term economic and social gains to our country, even without measuring some of the more intangible benefits that derive from goodwill and from in-depth knowledge of languages, cultures and experiences from parts of the world that are foreign to most other Australians.

None of this is to deny that asylum seekers present some difficult policy dilemmas. But we should at least seek to address those dilemmas through a logical framework.  And we should never forget that the dilemmas faced by almost all asylum seekers are far, far worse than what most Australians have to face.

ELSEWHERE:  Further details of the Liberal’s possible position in this piece from The Age. While the article has less of Kevin Rudd’s odd/incomprehensible comment, it has the beautifully succinct comment from Immigration Minister Chris Evans that the TPV “didn’t actually deter people, it just made them suffer”.

That’s probably all anyone needs to know really.

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