Is arriving by boat a good proxy for refugee migrant quality?

While conservative elements of the Australian Right are strongly opposed to unauthorised refugee boat arrivals, there has been a quirky argument from its more libertarian elements that we should prefer them to migrants plucked out of refugee camps. Chris Berg made a version of this argument in 2009:

Aren’t people who are willing to risk their lives on boats propelled by motorbike engines to get to a society with social and economic freedom exactly the sort of people we want in Australia?

In other words, making it to Australia by boat is a kind of screening process, demonstrating some economic success at home to pay people smugglers, organisational skills, and willingness to take risks, all of which could be helpful attributes once they arrive. The people sitting passively in refugee camps may have shown some survival skills, but not much else.

It’s an appealingly counter-intuitive argument. Unfortunately the data in a report on humanitarian migrant outcomes (for people who had been here one to five years) published late last week (large pdf) leads me to the conclusion that it probably isn’t right.

The report doesn’t distinguish between boat and air arrivals, but it does give country of birth. I’ve not been able to find long-term statistics on source countries of boat arrivals but some shorter term data (eg here, here, here) shows that only a handful of Africans arrive this way, but lots of Afghans, Iraqis, and Sri Lankans.

By far the best employment outcomes were for humanitarian migrants from Sierra Leone and other western and central African countries, which had employment rates above 50%, compared to overall employment rates for the entire Australian population of a bit over 60%. Ethiopians had an employment rate of 40%, Sudanese of 35%. The worst African results were people from Eritrea and Somalia, on 21%. But Afghans had a dismal 9% employment rate, and the Iraqis were little better on 12%. 34% of the Sri Lankan humanitarian migrants were employed – mid-range for the humanitarian group as a whole, but lower than most of the African humanitarian migrants.

The Africans are much more noticeable and receive more negative press than the other refugee groups. But if the test of a good migrant is showing enough initiative to get a job and make a contribution to Australian society, it looks to me like they are passing the test in greater numbers than the groups that tend to come uninvited by boat.

13 thoughts on “Is arriving by boat a good proxy for refugee migrant quality?

  1. Andrew, that may be true, but you’re ignoring the extremely high rates of “other” in the employment chart. Afghans may report only 9% employment, but they also report the lowest unemployment (8%) – more than 80% of them report being “retired, caring duties, studying full time, voluntary work, or setting up a business but no income yet”.

    Certainly in the case of studying, foregoing income in the present to gain higher future income seems to demonstrate some of those positive migrant attributes we both approve of. I admit the paper makes my claim a bit muddier, but your interpretation is misleadingly clear!


  2. “The report doesn’t distinguish between boat and air arrivals”

    Doesn’t your test fail at that point?


  3. Sinc – It’s not a perfect test. Two groups, one (the Africans) which is almost entirely authorised air arrivals, while the other groups are a mix of authorised and unauthorised. Given how bad the Afghan and Iraqi numbers are, it’s hard to imagine how a sub-set of the boat arrivals could be so much better than their countrymen we plucked out of refugee camps.

    Chris – Maybe. Or maybe Centrelink has just recognised that most of them will never get a job, and put them on ‘disability’ pensions.

    My ‘probably isn’t true’ recognised that the data does not let us conclusively reject the boat proxy test. All other things being equal boat arrivals may have qualities above those of otherwise similar people who are authorised arrivals. But on balance I think all other things are not equal, and on this data we are getting higher quality refugees from Africa (along of course with the people who provide negative stories for the Herald-Sun). Deterring boat arrivals and selecting refugees looks to be the better option, if migrant quality is the criterion.


  4. Those figures are very high — I imagine the cumulative effect of them would really make some difference to the long-term unemployed figures.


  5. I think that the fact that so few Africans arrive by boat is also a justifcation for minimising that avenue of arrival for other refugees. What I mean is that clearly something other than ‘courage’ or ‘resourcefulness’ is at play, possibly geography and relative financial advantage – two factors that arguably should play no role in humanitarian selection. If that weren’t the case, then doesn’t it imply that there is something Africans inherently lack that, for example, Afghans don’t? That they just don’t have the courage or resourcefulness that the others have and that’s necessary in order for you to buy your way here as the others do, and therefore sees them so statistically unrepresented?

    If we as a nation permit a mode of arrival that is so distorted demographically – where non-African races seem so clearly over-represented relative to their total refugee proportions – we are essentially tolerating a kind of discrimination by failing to discourage it. It should at least cause those throwing the label ‘racist’ at those who oppose boat arrival to pause briefly and consider if the system they support isn’t more worthy of criticism on racial grounds. Add to the fact that each boat arrival displaces a refugee selected by less racially discriminatory means – a UN assisted ‘needs based’ criteria – as part of our offshore resettlement programs, and one can see how much of the public might not have much time for the self-proclaimed (and highly selective) ‘refugee advocates.’


  6. Of course Africans do better. One of them has even managed to become a professor of economics, albeit at RMIT, but still. Another one got drafted into the AFL.


  7. Andrew ,
    as Sinclair of all people has said, your ‘test’ has failed.

    yet again a person attempts to measure something they cannot.

    The Father of TQM was very aware of attempting to ‘imperfect tests’ and their results.

    The major surprise to me is that you are not.


  8. Andrew, how does one contact you? I have tried to find an email address for this site but cannot? I have tried to contact you but don’t know whether I sent the email to the correct Andrew Norton


  9. KBK – As noted above, I am aware of the limitations of this data. But nor do I take a TQM approach to deciding which social science hypotheses are likely to be true, since in most cases rock solid evidence just does not exist. In this case for the original hypothesis to be correct, we need to assume that the survey largely missed the boat arrival Afghans and Iraqis, and that the boat arrivals from those backgrounds are 5 to 6 times as good as the air arrivals. It could be true, but it probably isn’t.

    Cath – anorton AT


  10. KBK – All social theory and most social science makes assumptions. The original hypothesis was based on the assumption that getting on a boat is a proxy method of discovering personal traits. It was not a ridiculous theory – the signaling theory of higher education is based on similar ideas. All my post said was that the limited evidence available is not consistent with that theory.


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