Where’s best for refugees in the US-Australia ‘people swap’?
Last November, the Australian government announced that the United States had agreed to resettle refugees languishing at its off-shore processing centers. As part of the arrangement Australia would accept asylum seekers at US-backed camps in Costa Rica.
For the center-right government in Canberra, the deal, struck with former President Barack Obama but announced after Donald Trump’s election, promised to resolve a difficult political quandary.
Human rights groups have condemned as cruel and unnecessary Australia’s policy of sending “unauthorized” boat arrivals to processing centers on the tiny island republic of Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea.
Under tightened rules introduced in 2013, even confirmed refugees, mostly hailing from the Middle East and Africa, are permanently denied the opportunity to settle in Australia. With considerable public support, the government has argued that accepting asylum seekers who come by boat would incentivize others to make the hazardous journey by sea, noting that more than 1,000 drowning deaths were recorded before the policy’s introduction.
By resettling the refugees in the US, Australia would pull off a double whammy by ending the controversial detention of refugees while maintaining its strict deterrence against coming to the country by boat. Australian officials have denied that taking Central American refugees who were destined for the US constitutes a “people swap.” Meanwhile, the offer is widely understood to depend on Trump sticking to the deal struck by his predecessor.
So far, so much politics. But what about the prospects of the refugees themselves if and when they are finally resettled? In the US and Australia, each cohort will face a distinct set of circumstances as they embark on their new lives.
Both countries have relatively strong job markets compared to much of the developed world, although the US has the slight edge at present. The official jobless rate in the US currently stands at 4.8%, practically full employment, compared to 5.9% in Australia. The Land Down Under, however, wins out on household income. In 2013-2014, the median Australian household brought in almost US$61,000, compared to US$52,000 earned in the US.
The typical Australian can expect to outlive his American peer by several years. With the sexes combined, the average life expectancy in Australia was 82.8 years in 2015, compared to 79.3 years in the US.
The US spends significantly more on public education than Australia, forking out almost US$13,000 per secondary level student in 2011, but comes up short in outcomes. In the OECD’s Programme for International Students Assessment carried out in 2015, Australian students significantly outperformed their Americans peers in reading, science and mathematics. More Australians also graduate from university, with 75% of the population estimated to complete tertiary education over their lifetime, compared to 54% of Americans, according to 2014 data from the OECD.
The US and Australia may be immigrant nations, but refugees are a polarizing topic in both countries. In January, President Trump signed an executive order which suspended the intake of refugees for four months and initiated a temporary travel ban on all citizens from seven predominantly Muslim nations. The travel ban was quickly blocked in the courts, after which a watered down substitute met the same fate. Trump has vowed to appeal all the way to the Supreme Court.
While Australia has yet to experience the same level of backlash, anti-immigration sentiment has played an increasingly large role in politics during the last year. In July’s federal elections, the anti-immigration, anti-Islam One Nation Party had its best-ever electoral result, securing four seats in the powerful senate. Recently, the government, led by the center-right Liberal Party, has adopted an increasingly aggressive line on immigration, tightening the criteria for skilled work visas and making it harder to acquire citizenship. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has argued that, “Australians must have priority for Australian jobs.” Critics have accused the government of pandering to an insurgent far-right as Australians feel increasingly insecure about the economy.