19 August 2013

Why the asylum seeker problem is like the drug problem

Today’s edition of the Australian academia-linked website The Conversation carries a 10,000 word essay by Desmond Manderson, Professor in Law and the Humanities, and ARC Future Fellow at the Australian National University, on the subject of why the asylum seeker problem is like the drug problem – a thought which has often occurred to me as my involvement in Australia21’s roundtables on the drug problem made me more familiar with our disastrous approach to that issue.

In his introductory paragraphs Professor Manderson says:

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.

In what follows, I explore the issues around Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers by developing this comparison with drug policy. My aim is not only to demonstrate that we have been this way before, with disastrous results. What is especially interesting about the drug debate is that, remarkably, something has changed in the past ten years. The shift from zero-tolerance to harm-reduction strategies provides us with a model for how to rethink a policy agenda, which is just making things worse.

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