Years ago, when Malcolm Fraser claimed Australia could, and therefore should, sustain a population of 50 million, Australian National University philosopher David Bennett tersely remarked: "The red danger line on your engine's heat gauge is not the place to rush to and make a stand at. It is the place to stay away from."
Environmentalists agreed. Groups such as Sustainable Population Australia have often talked about maintaining surplus population capacity in Australia for genuine refugees and genuine large-scale human emergencies. This is beginning to look like such a situation.
Indeed, Afghans' home situation is so bad that arguments about ecological problems begin to look thin against the humanitarian case for letting them in. Yet serious problems remain with the "Just let them in" argument. Refugees have a claim to immediate succour but no right to permanent citizenship. Also, peaceful invasion is still invasion.
Countries that oppose birth control or education of women will find their standard of living dropping by comparison with countries that act differently. Afghanistan, which cannot feed its population, is said to average an imprudent seven children per women, more than four times the Australian rate. In this sense it is a form of theft for such people to break into richer countries, uninvited, to share the greater riches.
Another problem is that this form of refugee immigration is uncontrolled. People are pushing in, in effect coming as invaders rather than by agreement with the host population. There is no implied social contract with the population.
To be welcomed into someone's country is always a favour and never a right. Most legal migrants appreciate their debt to a generous nation. If some resent having to feel indebted, for most the awareness of having been well treated is a positive thing. This helps smooth the frictions suffered in a new culture.
One cannot assume similar goodwill among those who push in. We may one day find peaceful invaders arguing they have no need to feel gratitude to racist Australians who refused to take in the rest of their people - or that since they had a right to come to Australia they are under no obligation to respect the culture of their hosts. There is a huge difference between the relationship that begins: "Come, you've been chosen as one of those we can rescue", and one that begins: "Damn it, you pushed in and now the lawyers say we can't send you back".
We must increase the number of people we take directly from the refugee camps. Humanity demands it. But we also need to increase aid to Afghanistan to prevent people becoming refugees. The cost of settling one family here might rescue a whole town there.
The only humane or cost-effective way to solve this or any other refugee problem is to improve conditions at the source. Was there a chance the West might see this? If so, it nose-dived last Tuesday. After the two planes crashed into the World Trade Centre in New York, a hire car was found at one of the airports, with flight training manuals in Arabic inside. Was this the work of Arabic-speaking terrorists, too dumb to hide their tracks? Or a clumsy tactic to direct suspicion towards groups such as Osama bin Laden's? Either way, one part of this disaster will be a less soluble refugee problem for Australia.
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