On Aug. 26, the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, rescued 438 mostly Afghan refugees from a sinking Indonesian ferry. Once they'd been rescued, however, Indonesia refused to have them back again—and Australia, their intended destination, refused to take them. Indeed, the Australian prime minister, John Howard, insisted that the refugees must not even set foot on Australian soil. With the aim of forcing the ship to leave Australian waters, he sent naval vessels out to the overloaded freighter. Yesterday—after overcoming legal objections—Australian soldiers boarded the freighter and began ferrying the asylum-seekers onto ships that would take them to Papua New Guinea and ultimately to New Zealand and Nauru.
Meanwhile, at approximately the same time, on approximately the other side of the world, another 100 or so asylum-seekers escaped from a refugee camp in France and tried to break into the Channel Tunnel in order to walk across the English Channel to Britain. Nor was this the first such incident. The previous week, 44 asylum-seekers—Afghans again—made it six miles into the Chunnel (it was built for trains but has a narrow emergency walkway along one side of the tracks) before they were stopped by French police who—citing the lack of an interpreter—let them go.
One British newspaper compared the latter incident to "pass the parcel," an English birthday-party game not unlike musical chairs, in which children pass a wrapped package around a circle until the music stops. But "pass the parcel" is also a good description of what is beginning to happen to the world's asylum-seekers: They are being passed from country to country as each one attempts to shift responsibility onto the next. Nor is a solution in sight. While it is true that some of the people who are at the center of the current refugee crisis in Europe and Asia are—like many of their Mexican counterparts crossing the Rio Grande—economic refugees who can, if caught, theoretically be sent back, many of those who find their way to countries like France, Britain, or Australia immediately declare themselves not to be economic migrants but political refugees, who risk torture, death, or worse if they go home. That presents a delicate political problem for the French, British, Australian, and other rich-country governments who are legally and morally bound—by international treaties, their own laws, and their own human rights rhetoric—to accept them.
At the core of the problem is an unacceptable fact: Truth be told, refugees' claims of political persecution frequently happen to be true. The U.N. High Commission on Refugees estimates that the new generation of refugees—from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, Somalia, or Sri Lanka, among other places—hovers around 22.3 million. Each could legitimately argue that, according to the U.N. Convention on Refugees, they have a right to settle in Sydney or Surrey. Harriet Sergeant, the author of a recent study of the British refugee crisis has described it like this: "If you are poor and live in the Third World, you are put upon. You get paid very little, you have no recourse to law, you get beaten up by the government, by another tribe, by your neighbours, for any number of reasons that could leave you with a fear of persecution."
Of course there have always been such people—but only now, in the age of mass transit, are they able to get out of their villages and onto the creaking boats and rickety airplanes that carry them to London or Paris or Sydney. In recent years, gangs of people smugglers have, like their counterparts the drug smugglers, also grown more sophisticated. In exchange for your family's life savings, they will stuff you into the back of a truck or the bowels of a ship, bribe immigration officers, and provide you with contacts and instructions on what to tell the immigration officers if you make it to the other side. Hence the problem. In 1982, in the wake of the declaration of martial law in Poland, the British, in an unprecedented show of sympathy, admitted a spectacular 400 Polish political refugees. As recently as 1994, only 824 people received full refugee status. In 1998-99, however, thanks both to the fast rise in numbers and the spectacular collapse of the Home Office's computer system, the backlog of unprocessed applicants reached 100,000.
The numbers look the same elsewhere, as does the political backlash, which is frequently drenched in hypocrisy. Instead of recognizing the problem for what it is—an international rise in the numbers of legitimate asylum-seekers, combined with the incompetence of their own immigration bureaucracies—politicians and bureaucrats instead denounce "asylum fraud" and pour populist scorn on the people entering the country, whoever they may be. John Howard has long been known for his harangues against the "queue-jumpers" who sneak out of refugee camps in Indonesia and head for Australia, and his decision to ban the Tampa was enormously popular. According to the Sydney Morning Herald a startling 77 percent of Australians approved of the decision, while Howard's personal approval rating—this in the run-up to an election—jumped 11 percent.
Meanwhile, refugees in Britain are examined by immigration officials who may well conclude that "the scarring on your back shows evidence of injury, but the Secretary of State is of the opinion that this does not show a cause or reason," as one did in an asylum-refusal letter I once saw, sent to a man who had marks on his body consistent with his claims of heavy beating and torture. William Hague spent an inordinate amount of time during his recent, losing tenure as Tory Party leader bashing "bogus asylum-seekers." It is thought to have been his only popular policy. Tony Blair's government, on the other hand, instituted the novel policy of pre-screening all London-bound passengers at Prague airport. The idea, it seems, was to filter out the Gypsies who might claim asylum on the other side. Everywhere, the numbers of illegal immigrants are rising, precisely because legal entry has become so difficult. And, as I say, if one government finds itself with too many Afghans or Sri Lankans on its hands, it does its best to pass them on to someone else.
Now, I don't, of course, begrudge anyone their immigration laws: Every country has the right to take in or reject as many foreigners as it wishes. European countries are small and crowded, Australia may feel it has migrants enough. Everywhere, letting in large numbers of immigrants causes other social problems that not every country is politically or financially equipped to solve.
Still, if the Western world's policy toward the rest of the world's refugees is to be both realistic and humane, it ought to face the real issues head on. Instead of focusing their tabloid-generated rage on the victims of torture who turn up at their airports or sending the navy to prevent ships full of half-drowned Afghans from landing on their shores, they could spend more money and political capital solving the problems in the places the refugees come from (click here, for example, to read about Afghanistan's forgotten famine).
Alternatively, they could admit that the political refugees are real, establish rapid processing procedures, and negotiate quotas. Anything is better than pretending that the doors are wide open, while quietly finding ways to keep them shut.