With asylum seekers and “boat people” once more in the Australian headlines, the politics and pandering over the “asylum seeker issue” has taken centre stage over the past few weeks. Many politicians, ex politicians and experts have weighed in, with the overwhelming consensus being that the only way to save lives and fix our ongoing “boat people problem” is through a policy of deterrence. The so called “Malaysia solution”, reopening of detention centres on Nauru, removing petrol from boats and then towing them back to Indonesia, the restoration of temporary protection visa’s, and even opening  processing centres on Indonesia; these are all ideas aimed at “deterring” refugees from getting on boats and risking their lives. But, one must ask, historically how successful has any public policy been at deterring anything?

History is rife with examples of authority seeking to stop undesirable behaviour through punishment, through deterrence. For example; many countries hand out capital or corporal punishment for violent and serious crimes (other countries hand out “life” or long periods of incarceration), most countries mete out shorter incarceration periods or community service for less serious crimes, most countries also have civil penalties for crimes (impacts on education, access to capital, living restrictions, firearms restrictions, employment restrictions etc.),  the Chinese government conducts forced abortions for violations of their “one child policy”, the Soviet Union tortured and killed people (and their extended families) for attempting to escape, the Catholic church once tortured and killed people for owning a copy of the Bible in the vernacular, most Religions have developed both earthly punishments (stoning and beheading, amputation, ostracism, forced marriage etc.) and unearthly punishments (eternal damnation in hell and purgatory, rebirth in a lower form etc.) for sins and disbelief, the United States briefly tried to outlaw alcohol in the 1920s, and, most famously, most countries have banned drug consumption and trading with introduced incredibly punitive laws, what’s more, many have joined the “war on drugs”.

Now, can any of us truly say these measures have worked? Are our countries completely devoid of murder, rape, arson, or other serious crimes? Has petty theft or fare dodging been stamped out? Does every couple in China only have one child? Did no one escape from the Soviet Union (especially through Hungary)? Did the Catholic Church succeed in quashing the reformation? Do all Religious people lead absolutely pious lives, have rates of apostasy diminished, and was the coming of Jesus and his “bail out” completely unnecessary? Did America’s period of prohibition stop people drinking? Has the “war on drugs” or punitive drug laws completely stamped out drug use? I would say no.

What’s even more damming is that pretty many all of these are examples of nonessential decisions/acts. In today’s world a Chinese couple having more than one child would likely be a choice. In certain cases, the decision to leave the Soviet Union was a choice (e.g. leaving for economic rather than oppressive reasons). Owning a Bible in the vernacular during the reformation was a choice. Apostasy, disrespecting parents and lying are all acts of choice. The decision to drink alcohol in America in the 1920s was a choice. Non-addictive recreational drugs (like Marijuana) are largely consumed by choice. Despite attempts at deterrence, despite many of these acts not being necessary, authority figures were either completely unable to stop the behaviour or reduce it to much more than a trickle.

History shows that you simply cannot stop an action if the perpetrators do not consider it to be wrong and think the benefits outweigh the risks and costs. This is as true for relatively minor and optional things like smoking marijuana as it is for necessarily things like seeking refuge by climbing on a boat. I am not saying that just because it has not worked historically it will definitely not work now. That would make me as dogmatic as those who want to transplant or continue old ideas just because they have worked in the past. However, good reasons must be put forward for why it would work now. A good reason has to be put forward for why it would accomplish anything more than driving the prices higher and the whole system even more underground. A good reason must be put forward for why it would achieve much more than reducing the rate to a trickle. There is already a massive deterrence that confronts asylum seekers: the sea. And, yet, they keep coming. Why would adding even more deterrence change anything? And, more importantly, has deterrence ever worked?

Originally posted @ Sakalabujan Magazine