Last Thursday, after weeks of refusing to open their borders, the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia caved to international pressure and began offering assistance to Rohingya asylum seekers stranded in the Andaman Sea between those two countries. Their smugglers had abandoned ship, leaving thousands of people adrift in rickety boats without adequate food or water.
But why did thousands of people attempt such a risky voyage? The Rohingya people are a Muslim ethnic minority in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar, where they are the target of extreme persecution. The Burmese government has stripped them of their citizenship and banned the use of the term Rohingya (as if that act would erase them from existence).
Government scapegoating of the Rohingya has become a nation-building tactic in Myanmar, leading to bouts of ethnic cleansing and mass displacement. In short, compared to the untenable conditions at home, even a high-risk escape plan is appealing for many.
As the numbers of Rohingya asylum seekers fleeing Myanmar by boat have increased in recent months, the Thai, Indonesian, and Malaysian governments have been vocal about their reluctance to offer protection.
The Australian government has also refused to assist any boat people in the region. Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been adamant in his claim that “If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on boats this problem will get worse, not better.”
The trouble with Abbott’s statement is that the evidence suggests otherwise. The ineffectiveness of deterrence policies cannot be proven definitively, because we can never know how many more people might have attempted to seek asylum in their absence.
Nevertheless, the data on asylum-seeking indicates strongly that people flee persecution no matter how dangerous their journey will be, as I discuss in detail in my book. Uncertainty, and even danger, are often preferable to the certain suffering they face at home.
For example, despite sustained efforts by the European Union to deter illegal border crossing, Europe’s border control agency recently reported several record-breaking years of illegal entries. The number of asylum applications lodged in Europe in 2014 was 615,000. That’s an all-time high.
The majority of people filing these applications are from Syria, Libya, and Eritrea. They continue to pay smugglers and attempt the dangerous, often deadly, journey across the Mediterranean because of instability in their home countries.
Similarly, despite the militarization of the U.S./Mexico border, and despite consistently low acceptance rates for asylum seekers from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, last summer tens of thousands of predominantly women and children attempted the extremely dangerous journey north, because of a spike in gang violence in Central America.
Australia has been a pioneer in asylum-seeker deterrence, but since its notorious Pacific Solution was implemented in 2001, the boats have kept on coming. Asylum seekers continue to pay smugglers to help them attempt the dangerous ocean journey, despite the certainty of detention in offshore prisons if they are apprehended.
In fact, the number of asylum seekers in Australian detention centers has only gotten larger since the Pacific Solution began.
Asylum seeker destination countries use deterrence policies not because they actually work, but because they play well politically.
In the post-Cold War era, accepting refugees carries very little geopolitical strategic value. Instead, asylum seekers can look a lot like undocumented immigrants, and boat arrivals can look a lot like an invasion.
Even when deterrence policies do successfully deflect asylum seekers, they don’t stay home. Rather, they flee to poorer countries that are far less able to handle arrivals.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the countries currently hosting the largest number of refugees are Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Ethiopia, and Kenya.
The Rohingya keep leaving Myanmar even in the face of extreme uncertainty. Most have fled to Bangladesh, which is not exactly a land of economic opportunity. The remainder have come to Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, none of which are signatories to the UN Refugee Convention. Asylum seekers who make it ashore in these countries must live in limbo, with few rights or future prospects.
Countries can claim that asylum seekers are expensive and burdensome. They can claim that poor, uneducated, migrants are unappealing, or difficult to assimilate.
However, the claim that deterrence strategies save lives or prevent or reduce human trafficking is not strongly supported by the available evidence. The plight of the Rohingya is a case in point.
Rebecca Hamlin in an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Grinnell College. She is the author of Let Me Be a Refugee: Administrative Justice and the Politics of Asylum in the United States, Canada, and Australia (Oxford, 2014).