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The problem of people smuggling must be solved at its source

By Helen Hughes - posted Monday, 15 July 2002

Australia is not alone in its 'asylum seeker' problems. 'Asylum seekers' are putting pressures on liberal democracies world-wide, with ensuing conflict between compassion and rules that avoid future social and political problems.

Migration is as old as human history. It has benefited millions, but it also cruelly displaced such peoples as Australian Aborigines. Where immigrants failed to integrate into the societies to which they moved, centuries of civil and international wars persist, notably in the Middle East, until to-day.

About seven and a half million migrants, looking for freedom and better living standards, move to liberal Western democracies annually:

  • more than three million are permanent and temporary immigrants entering Western countries legally after queuing according to immigration rules;
  • about four million are illegal immigrants, mainly from developing countries;
  • half a million 'asylum seekers' move annually
  • only 12 per cent of 'asylum seekers' have been judged to be refugees, that is, in danger of persecution in their home countries, by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees

Refugees are not creating the migration crisis. They only number some 50,000 annually. They are being accommodated in the West. More could be done to improve and accelerate refugee processing, but Australia is playing its role in providing access to refugees through its Embassies according to internationally agreed rules.

In addition, man-made and natural disasters, and civil and international conflicts, have displaced more than 35 million people world wide. The Great Lakes region of Africa has the highest concentrations. They live in desperate conditions, but most simply want to return home. Most illegal immigrants are from transitional and developing countries where standards are improving unconscionably slowly. Enough development has taken place for better educated, middle income (by transitional and developing country measures) people to emerge, but their lives are constrained by exploitative governments. Illegal immigration pressures are enormous because some 10 million middle income people are trying to move to the West. If emigration became easier, their numbers could quickly reach 100 million and more.

The pressures of illegal immigration have caused Western countries to tighten visa controls, border patrols, immigration laws and immigrant employment policing. Illegal migration also leads to a strong animus against all immigration.

Illegal immigration is the business of syndicates that combine people smuggling with drug, arms and other trafficking. Estimated to be earning $7 - 12 billion a year, they thrive on excess demand for immigration places. They engage in 'forum shopping' for countries with the least rigorous immigration controls, recruiting would-be emigrants prepared to risk illegal entry, advising many to enter as 'asylum seekers', and exposing them to such severe conditions that hundreds have died in transit. The syndicates charge extortionate fees, often collecting them from immigrants' earnings in host countries.

Migrants are no worse for having some financial resources, but equally, financial resources do not entitle them to jump immigration queues. Australia's immigration difficulties are only a very small part of the global problem. To date, distance and firm policies have stemmed the illegal immigration tide. The Howard Government is increasing annual immigration numbers to 120,000, though this is still below the 150,000 recommended by the Fitzgerald Committee. Many countries are trying to accelerate the integration of immigrants into their societies to make immigrants more welcome. But even if legal immigration numbers are substantially increased, globally excess demand will persist and grow. People smugglers will try new approaches and countries of immigration will have to thwart them to prevent human tragedies.


The only solution to the excess demand for immigration places lies in the countries of emigration adopting the rule of law, political democracy and liberal economic policies. Most exploitative governments do not undertake reforms because they are kept in power by aid and other capital flows from the West. On balance, the past 50 years of aid have done more harm than good to developing countries. At the same time, to appease their domestic pressure groups, most Western countries still have protectionist policies that harm agriculture and labour intensive industries in developing countries. Westerners assuage the guilt for past colonial occupations by aid flows, but these are worth much less than the cost of the industrial countries' protectionist policies. The West can make a substantial contribution to improving conditions in transitional and developing countries by changing its aid and trade policies. Only thus can it begin to deal with the long-run implications of excess demand for immigration places.

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This article was first published in The Australian Financial Review 26 June 2002. This article is based on Immigrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A Global View, published by The Centre for Independent Studies.

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About the Author

Professor Helen Hughes AO is a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies.

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