Asylum seeker policy since the PNG Solution: A difference from day one

In my previous post, I discussed the Abbott Governments secrecy when it came to providing information about their asylum seeker policies and operation matters, such as the number of people currently in detention centres.

However I didn’t address Scott Morrison’s claim from October 17 that the new government has substantially altered the number of arriving asylum seekers:

“IN just over five weeks of Operation Sovereign Borders, fewer than 600 people have turned up on 10 boats. Under the previous government this would occur in just five days. There has been a difference from day one. The current rate of arrivals represents an immediate 70 per cent decline, but we are not claiming anything at this stage and there is still a long way to go.”

Despite saying he is not claiming anything at this stage, Morrison is clearly implying that from around September 18 (the day Operation Sovereign Borders commenced), the amount of asylum seekers arriving in Australia changed dramatically. How does inference claim stack up?

Asylum seekers in 2013

This screenshot comes from a handy Fairfax interactive.  This ABC website informs us that since September 18, there have been a total of 544 people on 10 boats. In terms of past trends of people seeking asylum, the first six months of 2013 were amongst the highest on record for Australia. This is the period where despite the introduction of the revamped Pacific Solution from August 2012, the trend of people claiming asylum was high (relative to past Australian experience) and increasing.

The “PNG Solution” was announced on 19 July 2013.  I believe the graph above shows the PNG policy as the central policy change that has led to less people claiming asylum. Scott Morrison’s inference that the actions of the Abbott Government are the primary driver of reducing people seeking asylum are largely based on correlation and benefit from post-hoc commentary.  While the number of people claiming asylum has reduced since September 18, there is no evidence to suggest it was due to the militarisation of asylum seeker policy.  The reduced trend of people claiming asylum started from late July, not from mid-September.

There is strong academic evidence to support this.  While it is impossible to determine what motivates individual people seeking asylum at the micro-level, we have a general idea about what happens at the macro-level. Tim Hatton outlines here how different policy options impact the number of people seeking asylum. He finds “the policies that deter applications are those that limit access to territory and those that reduce the proportion of claims that are successful”. This describes the PNG solution.

However Hatton also warns, “policies that diminish the socioeconomic conditions of asylum seekers evidently have little deterrent effect and they may even contribute to the subsequent deprivation that many asylum seekers experience”. This describes mandatory detention and temporary protection visas, something the Coalition are seeking to introduce. Perhaps most importantly, he outlines how regardless of government policy settings, ~70 per cent of people seeking asylum are motivated by factors in their home country, such as the fear from governments or economic disincentives. There are lessons for all political parties in these figures.

Current events still unfolding and past examination of asylum policies both point towards the PNG “solution” being the central factor in what Scott Morrison claims is a 70 per cent reduction in the number of people seeking asylum since September 18.  Any other interpretation should be accompanied by evidence, which from publicly availably evidence, doesn’t exist.



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