Asylum statistics

One of Amnesty International’s media releases reports on a survey of Australians’ knowledge and opinions on asylum seekers. However, the point of the media release is clearly to highlight some of the facts themselves, not just the extent to which people are aware of them. This seems reasonable, given that:

The opinion poll also showed that a large majority of Australians have major misconceptions regarding the percentage of asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat. On average, Australians believe that about 60 per cent of asylum seekers come to Australia by boat. More than a third of Australians believe that over 80 per cent of asylum seekers arrive by boat. In fact, only 3.4 per cent of people who sought asylum in Australia in 2008 arrived by boat – the other 96.6 per cent arrived by plane.

This is a fairly important statistic. However, this article is utterly devoid of citations, and as a researcher this annoys the hell out of me. Amnesty is a kind of lobbying organisation. As such it has an interest in altering opinions, and so it shouldn’t always expect people to take it at face value.

The other thing that troubles me is the discussion of processing costs (it costs more to process asylum seekers on Christmas Island than on the mainland). Why would Amnesty even care about asylum seeker processing costs? It’s hardly an issue on which human rights hinge. I’d venture that it cares only because it’s another means of altering opinions. It certainly wouldn’t be reporting processing costs if they were less on Christmas Island.

(This reminded me of the nuclear power debate. Greenpeace has argued that the nuclear power is unwise because the economics don’t stack up. This is actually quite dishonest, in my opinion, even if it’s entirely accurate. It’s hard to imagine that Greenpeace cares about the economics argument against nuclear power for its own sake. Coming from an authority on economics, such an argument may be taken seriously. The same argument coming from Greenpeace just looks like someone trying to push our buttons.)

In general I don’t wish to denigrate Amnesty. The lobbying it does is directed at a genuinely worthy cause, unlike that conducted by a large number of other lobbyists. However, worthy causes are almost always served by open discussion, and this includes the ability to verify the facts and statistics for oneself.

There is of course much discussion of the statistics in the media. For instance, Crikey has a list of statistics on asylum seekers with numerous but not terribly good references. I eventually managed to (more-or-less) confirm that only 179 out of 4750 asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2008. This report gives the 179 figure on page 4, while a media release on the Immigation Minister’s website mentions the 4750 figure. That comes out at roughly the same percentage (3.8%) as quoted by Amnesty.

The processing costs, I’m guessing, came from a 2007 report for Oxfam. The report states:

The latest figures given to a budget estimates hearing on 22 May 2006 suggest that it cost $1,830 per detainee per day to keep someone on Christmas Island compared to $238 per detainee per day at Villawood in Sydney.

So why am I interested in asylum seeker processing costs? I’m not; not directly, anyway. I consider it to be an argument that largely misses the point –  mechanisms intended to discourage unauthorised boat arrivals incur a human cost, not just a financial one. However, from the financial cost I note that not even selfish motives would justify a hardline position on unauthorised boat arrivals. What, then, are the hardliners actually arguing about? If both altruism and self-interest suggest the same course of action, what kind of corrupt mode of thinking can possibly raise an objection?

It’s inexcusable that we should make asylum seekers the object of such irrational concern. By definition, these are people who possess the least political power of anyone in the world. However, as a direct result, their suffering also carries the least political risk; not that you’d know it from listening to some of the myopic reactionary logic floating around over the last few years.

It seems that ideology can thrive where beliefs are not merely simplistic or unsupported, but where they are demonstrably false.