I was watching the news past Saturday when Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, took time out from a talk on iron ore prices (or something along those lines) to discuss the ongoing issue of people smuggling. It’s a short video that you’ll have to follow the link to see (The Australian doesn’t provide embed code), but what’s interesting is Abbott’s prescription for stopping people smuggling. The logical issues with his argument are worth unpacking because they’re routinely used by politicians everywhere who either don’t understand what they’re dealing with, want to change the argument, or some combination thereof. None of which leads to good policy outcomes.
Abbott says in the interview that the key issue is human trafficking. In order to stop the human trafficking one has to stop the boats getting to their end destination. This is an interesting way of framing the issue. Others might argue that the people on these boats aren’t being trafficked as much as they’re fleeing persecution and paying people to arrange passage. But regardless of why these people are paying to get onto boats, if the problem is the traffickers is Tony Abbott’s solution of turning back the boats going to stop the traffickers from sending people out on boats?
We could look at this in two ways. Both are economic, with one focused on supply and demand and the other focused on changing the economics of the transaction. The supply/demand argument is fairly straightforward. People are being persecuted, in this case Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar, so they pay traffickers to put them on a boat out. If you buy this model, then is it really useful to stop the boats if you want to decrease trafficking? Not really; the conditions that spur demand for traffickers’ services still exist, so people will keep paying to risk their lives at sea. Assuming they never return to Myanmar the human trafficking problem works itself out when all the people who want to leave have done so.
The second way to look at this is transactionally. Let’s assume that demand for the traffickers’ services is fixed. People are going to pay them no matter what. The problem with turning back the boats as the solution for stopping human trafficking is when the transaction between migrant (refugee) and trafficker takes place; the trafficker gets paid before the refugee boards the boat. Their pay isn’t dependent on the boat arriving anywhere, so turning the boats back doesn’t cut into their revenue. Indeed, by turning the boats back you’re just sending back people who will be repeat customers. If I were a trafficker I’d be all for this.
Basically Abbott has misdiagnosed the problem, then prescribed a solution that just makes the problem worse. This isn’t unique to Abbott – there are plenty of politicians the world over who have made this an art form. The main question we have to ask now is whether he and politicians in the U.S. and Europe who face their own migration issues are up to the intellectual task of governing, are misrepresenting the problem to fit an anti-refugee policy position, or some combination thereof.