I've been recently surprised to find out that Australia apparently granted 12,000 visas to refugees from Syria:

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has announced it has fulfilled it's 2015 pledge to increase refugee intake, with 12,000 visas granted to Syrian refugees.

This comes in stark contrast to the way Australia normally treats refugees and illegal immigrants. So why would the Australian government commit to willingly taking in refugees from abroad?

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    Note that the language in the ads, the official position, etc. are all about “illegal maritime arrivals”, “illegal boats”, etc. and not refugees per se.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Aug 15, 2017 at 15:29

3 Answers 3


The official message of the Turnbull government is that the “Pacific solution” is intended to discourage the dangerous passage by sea and undermine criminal networks making money out of it. In that context, it makes sense to provide an alternative. The message is “don't waste money on a risky passage, go through the legal route instead”. On the flip side, it's easier to vet refugees and manage their arrival that way.

Without alternative route to refugee status, Australia's position would also be hypocritical and ultimately untenable. Beside loudly claiming that no one will ever be accepted in in the country, a major component of the policy is to get poor countries like Papua New Guinea and Nauru to take the people caught crossing irregularly on ships. Basically using Australia's clout and money to get rid of “boat people”, with the added benefit that it makes Australia less attractive than other potential destinations. That's also why Australia spends money on professionally designed ads: It's a communication approach more than anything else.

But it doesn't really solve anything, only displaces and freezes the problem. The conditions in the camps deteriorated quickly, with no long-term solution in sight, and Australia is still accountable for that. The current government only managed to stick to this policy because the US accepted to process a few thousands of these people. I am not sure whether increased participation in relocation efforts was formally a condition to that agreement but Australia would certainly be under a lot of pressure to participate in international efforts to relieve the countries most impacted by the current refugee crisis (countries like Jordan and Turkey, which take millions, not tens of thousands, of refugees).

One clear benefit of such an arrangement is that even if the country ultimately takes as many or even more refugees, it still makes the crossing much less attractive for the people trying it as they won't be the ones ultimately allowed to settle in Australia. I believe there were discussion about a similar agreement between the EU and Turkey at some point, whereby Turkey would take back a number of people stuck in Greece and the EU would in exchange take the same number of refugees from Turkey, selected and vetted through official resettlement programmes. The net flow remains the same, all countries contribute but the incentive to attempt to cross the border irregularly is reduced.


There is something of an assumption in the question that immigration policies are either very open or very closed and thus perplexing for a distinction to be made by countries between open for immigration through legal, procedurally fair channels and closed for illegal trafficking.

Blunt fact is most of the planet is poor, governed by corrupt oligarchies and by most metrics has a very rough 21st century ahead of it. Since it is manifestly impossible for any country to absorb all the people that would like to live in a better part of the world if they could, each country - hopefully as a democratic consensus by its existing residents - establishes a procedural process with quotas of how many people it will accept for various reasons.

Prime Minister Turnbull mentioned in his phone call to President Trump that being visibly strict on illegal trafficking ("boat people" in Australian Media parlance) is to encourage applying through appropriate channels and to maintain faith that everyone you meet on the street is a legitimate resident with all the rights they are entitled to.

The ugliness of the off-shore processing "solution" is partly deliberate (i.e. to make the illegal route less desirable than the legal one) and partly ham-fisted bureaucratic indifference. The treaties that 1st world countries signed in the 20th century to pressure democratic development in emerging economies have become something of two-edged sword in the 21st - since how do you discourage illegal immigration whilst preserving the dignity of those involved? I don't envy politicians finding a middle ground in this quagmire.

Why Syrian refugees specifically? The general consensus of the West is that the vast majority of Syrians were consumed by a civil war/regional proxy war they didn't create (only the young and the foolish start violent revolutions). So taking in Syrian refugees is a more sympathetic choice than economic migrants or political refugees from never-ending hell-holes.

The United States is an example of how not to do immigration policy (is that controversial?). No side would agree the current arrangement is healthy or allows for procedural fairness. No one should ever fear being dragged out of their home and separated from their kids. The hard decisions have to made before it gets to that point. An economic migrant won't decide against their own interest; and rarely thinks about whether queue jumping undermines those in greater need.

We may eventually have a border-less planet; and that will be a good thing. For the foreseeable future though, economic migrants will always be ranked lower than refugees and refugees will ranked according to how novel the level of suffering in their origin country is - not an absolute measure of suffering (otherwise everyone from North Korea should get an auto-visa).

  • The irony of immigration control for a colony that displaced and/or genocided its original inhabitants is not lost on me. But history is a litany of horrors - so we create laws in the present to shape the future; not to equalise the past. Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 4:38
  • "to maintain faith that everyone you meet on the street is a legitimate resident with all the rights they are entitled to" I don't think that's really a concern here (unlike in the US) - those who come by boat aren't coming to hide (they would be very conspicuous in the low population towns of Northern Australia) but would immediately and officially apply for asylum once they arrived. Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 10:46

Australia has the highest foreign born population of any country. 7 million people were born overseas, so about 30% of the population.

Australia has also high immigration quotas:

  • 2002–03 108,070
  • 2003-2004 114,360
  • 2004-2005 120,060
  • 2005 142,933
  • 2006 148,200
  • 2007 158,630
  • 2008 171,318
  • 2011 185,000
  • 2012 190,000

The fact that they granted 12,000 visas to Syria, so probably about 6% of all granted for this year is not shocking.

Australia just want to make sure they know people that are coming in. If someone arrives on the boat without any documents he is not welcome.

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