While it had been a relief to see relative calm return to Australia’s discourse around migrants and refugees during 2008, the last few months have been an unfortunate reminder that sometimes Australia can only too quickly return to national hysteria over matters concerning asylum seekers and refugees.
The tragedy at Ashmore Reef in April and the increase in asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat comes against a backdrop of a significant increase in asylum seekers globally due to increased conflict. These events have seen a return to some of the national division around these issues that always seem to be lurking.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about Australia that makes us so alarmist about the relatively small number of asylum seekers who are arriving by boat at present. Is it our island fortress mentality? Is there a latent insularism in our community that remains ingrained into our national psyche? Whatever the reason it is important facts are brought to the table.
The United States of America, an immigrant nation like Australia, has an estimated 11.5 million “illegal” — if we want to use that term — immigrants and relatively little media interest in this staggering statistic. People there worked out a long time that immigration makes the new world tick — economically and socially. Australia has only around 50,000 illegal immigrants — again if we want to use that often misleading term — few of whom are asylum seekers and most of whom are simply tourists overstaying on their visas.
Another contrast to our comparatively benign predicament is the third world country Pakistan which hosts more than 2 million refugees and now also has a large number of its own displaced persons due to more recent events.
Europe is inundated with hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers from Africa and Asia. The Netherlands — a country that has a population comparable to Australia with nothing like our national resources and space — had around 10,000 asylum seeker claims last year, more than double the 5,000 asylum seeker claims received in Australia and New Zealand during that period.
But behind these statistics are of course real people. Real people with often tragic and heart–wrenching stories of displacement, loss, injury, trauma and worse. People who have been abandoned and then persecuted and worse by their own governments and leaders. People forced to leave their homes, livelihoods, families, friends and traditions through no choice or fault of their own. People who if they had the choice would live in their homelands but cannot do so due to the serious persecution, injury and even death they would face there.
These are real people who can be given a sense of real hope and new beginnings if given a second chance in a democratic, prosperous and stable nation like Australia under a properly managed immigration program.
With the exception of the dehumanising and demoralising Temporary Protection Visas, which have now thankfully been abolished, and our previously inhumane detention policies, which have been softened, Australia has provided the refugees lucky enough to enter Australia with a new start and new hope.
While Australia’s official refugee program of 13,750 is generous on per–capita terms, the reality is that with somewhere around 20 to 30 million refugees and displaced people around the globe it’s the least we can do. The climate change we are now experiencing — which will cause further displacement in the Pacific and Indian Ocean region — means we now also have do more in our own neighbourhood.
Given the astronomical rates with which our skilled migration program has risen over the last decade, more than doubling even after the recent much hyped reductions, more should be done on the refugee front, particularly given Australia’s great wealth of natural resources and our capacity to successfully absorb refugees. Many refugees also have skills so further thought needs to be given to locating deserving skilled migrants from refugee backgrounds, while not undermining the non–discriminatory nature of our refugee program more broadly.
Australia has made some valuable steps forward with regards to refugee and immigration policy since 2007 but we need to remain vigilant. The non–government sector must ensure our government is held to account and is fulfilling its human rights obligations.
Moves to greater accountability and transparency in detention practices need legislative teeth. The heavy focus on border protection needs to be equally matched by a continued focus on social cohesion and harmony policies and successful settlement policies within our borders. Hard policies must be matched by soft policies to achieve maximum effect.
The recent five–year extension of private contracts in immigration detention facilities by the Rudd Government needs to be very carefully scrutinised to ensure proper public accountability. And under no circumstances should we countenance a return to the inhumane and degrading temporary protection visas despite calls to that effect.
More broadly in the multicultural affairs space the Government needs to restore the critical position of full time Race Discrimination Commissioner at the Human Rights Commission, which was made a part–time position under the Howard government. It also needs to consider a stronger legislative framework around religious discrimination and vilification. The Government needs to begin incorporating the needs of disadvantaged migrants and refugees in the social inclusion agenda, which is currently a blank space in that regard, and it should also restore parity in SBS’s funding as against the ABC’s. Moves to reduce barriers in the Howard government’s higher level citizenship test also need to be fully implemented and monitored.
It is unfortunate that the basic principles of human rights and ethnic and religious minority rights sometimes clash with our critically important democracy and its sometimes unfortunate side effect — majoritarian rule. But this is why we have a legal system and international standards around human rights that need be observed: to protect people who otherwise may be forgotten, discriminated against or discarded.
National leadership around issues of multiculturalism, cultural diversity, non–discrimination and anti–racism is still required as is a consistent narrative from the highest levels that both recognises and embraces our culturally diverse population.
The Australian community and our current government can ensure we do not witness a return to those difficult years when refugees and asylum seekers were demonised by many and our community was hopelessly divided around issues of race, religion and migration. This is a significant challenge for the Rudd Government and one which I am confident they can rise to.