Opinion: The Oz Asylum Seeker Racket

In the forthcoming election in Australia, a major issue of contention is how to stop the invasion of the country by an increasing flood of undocumented, objectively unidentifiable economic immigrants.

The future of Australian society is being threatened by these boat arrivals because of unfocused official policies and (reportedly) challengeable assessment procedures, which can be expected to result in seriously adverse inter-community and budgetary consequences.

The issues arising from this manner of asylum seeking are quite simple: morality, legality, equity (or fairness) and good governance.

As necessary background, it must be noted that, at Australian airports, a person found, after an in-depth scrutiny, of having been dishonest in obtaining an entry visa, is sent back to the point of departure. It would be obvious that an entrant with an acceptable visa who, after landing in Australia by air claims asylum, had not told the truth to the visa-issuing official. Should not such a person be treated the same way? That is, be sent home (or to the point of departure to Australia) immediately, and advised to follow due process?

This is the background against which a claim for refugee asylum by an unidentifiable boat arrival needs to be assessed. The primary issue is morality. The related issue is what is being camouflaged? Should not a person who has disposed of all his documents before taking a boat be thereby viewed with suspicion? Have we as a nation not learnt anything from our experiences with the boat people of a previous era?

My experience as Director of Policy on refugee and humanitarian entry suggests that we attract criminals and other unsavory individuals when we pay unwarranted attention to the UN Convention on Refugees, or allow party politics to influence humanitarian entry. There is enough evidence of this.

As for the legality involved, Australia is an independent nation with a right to protect its borders. The UN has no jurisdiction over this right. The UN Convention on Refugees is not legally binding; it is not a treaty, and can be applied in a manner consistent with the national interest. Thus, Muslim refugees from Kosovo were given only temporary protection, and were then required to return to their homes when stability had been achieved. It was a sound policy.

Shouting 'Open sesame' at the door of Australia's cave of welfare 'goodies' is equivalent to an unlawful boat arrival saying 'You don't know who or what I am, but I am a refugee. If you do not give me what I want as quickly as possible, I will sue you.'

The third issue here is fairness. The vociferous Anglo-Australian supporters of unlawful arrivals, all of whom may not be as materially disinterested as they profess, claim that all asylum seekers (whom they had never met) satisfy the UN Convention. How do they know this? They are certainly very generous with the hard-earned taxes paid by fellow citizens. As it is, billions of dollars are spent in dealing with the asylum seekers.

Unwarranted compassion by some politicians for very large numbers of potentially unemployable persons, against the background of a slowing economy and increasing unemployment, is just irresponsible. Examine the data: e.g. after five years, Afghans accepted as refugees reportedly have an unemployment rate of 91 percent according to The Australian. What sort of work will unskilled arrivals find available in a country with an extremely low need for such workers?

Should not these supporters, especially the politicians, provide the nation with the costs (the dole, other welfare, public housing, Medicare, legal representation, court fees, interpreters, phone calls, etc.) arising from their policy, year by year, especially after allowing for family reunion? Fairness to their nation requires that.

The policy of granting only a three-year temporary protection visa was foolishly discarded a few years ago. That policy permitted the repatriation of asylum seekers when conditions had improved in their countries of nationality. Economic migrants should, of course, be required to follow the established path of due process, by seeking selection by authorized officials.

Australians who had been selected as immigrants or as refugees on the basis of their capacity for making a net contribution to Australia and to integrate easily into Australian society, would not support the entry of self-selected boat arrivals. These are important issues for the health of any nation. Even refugees need to be assessed in terms of their ability to integrate. When it is not possible to identify an asylum seeker (through a lack of necessary documentation), how could an assessment be made about his/her capacity to integrate into the nation? Will this person be able to adapt to the institutional framework and the social values of modern, egalitarian, non-sectarian Australia?

The fourth issue in examining this contentious matter is the quality of governance. About six years ago, a new government dispensed with temporary asylum. What was the rationale? This was effectively an invitation to the snake heads in Indonesia to send more boats to Australia, receiving up to about $10,000 per head placed on rickety boats. The undocumented passengers were expected to be saved (euphemistically termed 'intercepted') by Australia's naval border patrol.

This open door policy has reportedly led to the establishment of 'travel agency' arrangements in certain countries of departure. Indonesia's practice of issuing entry visas on arrival for some, and visa-free entry for Muslim visitors must surely be a part of this open door. The availability of lawyers (all pro bono?) who are interested in finding more entry doors through appeals to the courts, by supporting what they consider to be arguable cases, would be of considerable advantage to the boat arrivals. Repeated access to the courts by these (mainly) economic migrants is a wondrous part of the process. How so?

In my view, Australia is not known to display necessary strength in dealing with powerful corporate or other interests. What is worse is that, when border protection, the stability of inter-communal relations, and budgetary consequences require a bipartisan approach, what we see is political sniping, associated with a degree of puffery.

When a respected media commentator quoted (in The Australian) who was previously involved in the assessment of asylum seekers about the challengeable and ineffective practices currently being followed, and which now permit almost every asylum seeker to be accepted, there is nothing said by relevant politicians about temporary protection. Why not? Allowing for family reunion, the 44,000 who arrived through the 'open door' will most likely result in more than 120,000 economic migrants, most unemployable for years.

What sort of governance is this? With budgetary deficits expected to last many years, rising recorded and hidden unemployment (and welfare costs) in an economy slowing into recession, how could anyone responsible justify keeping the door open for unskilled unselected immigrants? Slogans like 'Stopping the boats' and 'No one will be re-settled in Australia' will have no impact on the 44,000 'open-door' arrivals already in the country. Their 'glee club' should be pleased. Purely in passing, I do wonder if the members of this open entry support group work for the betterment of their fellow Australians, the Aborigines.

(Raja Ratnam, who emigrated from Malaysia, has lived for more than six* decades in Australia)

Corrected 8/1713