Few things expose a nation like immigration policy. The debate over who should be allowed in, when and under what circumstances goes right to the heart of national identity.
In Australia, immigration is a controversial issue that has become highly politicised, particularly around the treatment of ‘boat people’.
An immigration nation
Australia has long been a nation of immigrants. From federation in 1901 until 1973, immigration was characterised by a ‘White Australia’ policy.
Since then, immigrant numbers have risen from 30,000 in 1993 to 241,400 in 2010. Presently around 25% of Australia’s 22 million people are born overseas – well ahead of the OECD average of 11%.
The majority of migrants arrive under skilled visas and family reunification programmes, with 30% coming from New Zealand and the UK. China recently edged out Italy for third place, accounting for around 5% of new arrivals.
In addition, Australia takes 13,750 refugees each year. Of these, 6,000 are resettled by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) while 7,750 are accepted through Australia’s humanitarian programme.
To put this in perspective, it’s around 10 refugees per 10,000 head of population, compared to 87 per head in Sweden and 50 in Canada.
Yet despite accounting for a tiny proportion of overall immigrants, asylum seekers are subject to inflammatory media coverage and often labelled ‘queue jumpers’, or regarded as potentially dangerous.
A two-tiered system
The UNHCR defines an ‘asylum seeker’ as anyone seeking international protection due to a fear of being persecuted on the basis of their political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social group.
Once they have met certain conditions outlined by the UNHCR, they may be deemed a ‘refugee’ and granted protection.
However, Australia has a two-tiered system for determining refugee status.
Those asylum seekers who arrive by plane usually have valid visas (for example student or business visas) and once they have lodged a claim for asylum, are generally issued bridging visas while their claim is processed.
They remain in the community or are placed in mainland detention centres such as Villawood, Curtin, Darwin, Perth and Maribyrnong during this time. If their asylum claim is unsuccessful, they can appeal to the Department of Immigration and Refugee Review Tribunal.
In contrast, those asylum seekers who arrive by boat, often referred to as ‘boat people’, tend to arrive without valid visas and are placed in a mandatory detention centre offshore on Christmas Island. They have no right to access the courts to appeal a breach of procedure.
A possible turning point?
This two-tiered system could potentially be abolished following a High Court decision in November which upheld the argument of two Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island.
They claimed that the laws denying them the right to an appeal were unfair, and the Court agreed.
This is significant because it sets a legal precedent for other boat arrivals to have the right to access the courts for appeal.
While the decision’s consequences remain to be seen, human rights lawyers view it as a victory for asylum seekers and the law.
The wider debate
The decision comes at a difficult time for the minority Gillard government, who promised in the 2010 election to stem the tide of asylum seekers into a smaller ‘sustainable’ Australia.
While both parties have traditionally supported strong immigration, concerns over housing affordability, infrastructure and climate change in 2010 led both parties to reverse their positions. Labor sought to cap immigration to 145,000 per year by 2012, and the Liberals to 170,000.
However, despite the number of asylum seekers being “so miniscule that it is irrelevant to population growth”, according to Martin Drum, political analyst at the University of Notre Dame, boat arrivals in particular continue to receive huge amounts of political attention.
The search for a solution
Under the Howard Government’s ‘Pacific Solution’ (2001-2008), asylum seekers were held offshore in a bid to reduce the numbers reaching Australian shores. This was abolished by the Rudd Government in 2008, leading to a spike in boat arrivals.
In 2010, Labor proposed the ‘Timor Solution’ where offshore claims processing would be held in East Timor. This was met with scepticism by East Timorese President Jose Ramos-Horta.
Presently the opposition advocates re-opening detention centres in Nauru and reserving 10,000 places for UNHCR refugees, with 3,000 places for asylum seekers arriving in Australia. They also pledge to ‘turn back the boats’ and apply mandatory work schemes for arrivals.
At the other end of the scale, the Greens propose increasing the number of refugee places, abolishing mandatory detention and allowing asylum seekers the right of appeal.
They would also ensure processing takes no more than 90 days, assist with community integration and adopt an ‘environmental refugee’ category.
While there are no simple answers in the asylum seeker debate, in Australia the issue is often clouded by myths and inflammatory political rhetoric.
However the abolishing of a two-tier system for determining refugee status could be a small victory for justice in a country made up of many immigrants.
By Victoria Craw