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.