A predictable orgy of blame-throwing has accompanied the latest influx of boat people, an influx that followed changes in the policy and rhetoric of the Rudd Government, which announced it would use mandatory detention as a last resort.
The term xenophobia has immediately been thrown about by the usual suspects, the refugee lobby, the human rights lobby, the utopian left and a predictable section of the media. The policy of detention has been portrayed as self-evidently cruel and discriminatory, and the bipartisan political support for a regime that acts as a deterrent to unauthorised arrivals has been presented as proof of this country’s latent xenophobia.
Australia is not a xenophobic nation. The argument is nonsense. Let me count the ways:
1. The number of refugees or humanitarian cases admitted by the Howard government was the highest of any government in Australian history, other than a brief spike after World War II. This legal intake did not generate significant public opposition or partisan division in Canberra. The number of humanitarian arrivals admitted during the Howard years was more than 128,000, says the field’s leading expert, Dr Katherine Betts.
2. The number of Muslims admitted to permanent residence was far higher during the Howard years than during any other government. The Muslim population rose from 200,000, in 1996, to 340,000 in 2006, a 65 per cent surge in 10 years. (Figures again supplied by Betts.) This surge took place during a time of rising violence by militant Islamists, and the murder of scores of Australians by Islamic fundamentalists. Yet the historic increase in Muslim numbers via legal channels generated no meaningful political opposition.
3. Australia has the highest number of foreign-born residents of any large, advanced Western democracy. The proportion is almost one in four. For years Australia has maintained one of the world’s largest per capita immigrants intakes, and the majority of arrivals have been non-European. Debate over immigration has flared only when the immigration stream has been abused by widespread fraud. The most sustained opposition has come from environmentalists concerned with sustainable growth.
4. People who arrive by boat present a more confronting challenge to legal, security and health screening than those who arrive by air and overstay their visas. Arrivals by air must present valid documentation before travelling. It is common practice for those who arrive by boat to destroy their travel documents, and engage people smugglers, measures designed to create a fait accompli, and make it more difficult to send them back to their nations of origin. This makes a far more difficult and expensive process of checking arrivals’ legal, security and health status.
5. The rigorous deterrence and screening of unauthorised arrivals is integral to national security. Some of those who have settled in Australia and later engaged in criminal behaviour or welfare fraud have arrived via the refugee or humanitarian programs. The screening process for such programs is more problematic. So, too, is the absorption process. A recent spate of convictions for terrorist activity within Australia has largely involved people who came as immigrants.
6. The Tamil Tigers, whose campaign for independence from the central government in Sri Lanka led to a long and bloody civil war, have received considerable support from within the Tamil community in Australia. In April more than 1000 ethnic Tamils blockaded the gates of Kirribilli House, the Prime Minister’s Sydney residence, calling for a ceasefire in the Sri Lankan Government’s military offensive against the Tigers. The Sri Lankan high commissioner to Australia, Senaka Walgampaya, said the Tamil Tigers had received significant support from Australia, a view shared by Australian intelligence.
7. The number of refugees or displaced persons in the world, more than 20 million, is roughly the same as the population of Australia, 22 million. Advanced economies could only accept all these people by incurring domestic social and economic costs, which they are not prepared to make. Immigration policies have ripple-on effects, hence the need for quotas.
8. The Rudd Government deploys a zero-sum refugee policy. Although it increased immigration and temporary-working visa intakes, it maintained the annual intake of refugee/humanitarian at 13,500. Government policy thus dictates that those who arrive by boat and are given asylum status have displaced people who have registered with the United Nations or the government. The 13,500 annual refugee quota is a real waiting line of people with real needs. It is a queue that cannot simply be rendered invisible or irrelevant.
9. UN laws and conventions pertaining to the treatment of asylum seekers have no override authority over Australian law. The concept of ”the international community” is no more than a rhetorical device. In reality the phrase refers to other like-minded human-rights activists overseas. Most democracies punish governments that fail the test of border security.
10. The 78 ethnic Tamils who have illegally occupied the Australian customs vessel Oceanic Viking are demanding rights that do not exist under international law. Most have been in Indonesia for some time. They want to settle in Australia, or another wealthy country, but that decision is not theirs to make.
The Oceanic Viking needs to be reclaimed, secured, prepared for sea, then sail for Sri Lanka with the 78 recalcitrants on board. They have rejected Indonesia. Anything less is a capitulation to moral blackmail, where children have been used as props and pawns. The impasse is not a test of rights but a test of wills. The prolonging of the Oceanic Viking saga has shown Rudd to be a man who seeks to be all things to all people.