The migrant problem

AUSTRALIA is a nation of migrants. Apart from the Aborigines, the original inhabitants of this big, brown land, every single resident has come from afar, some on the first convict ships in the 1700s, others more recently.

Migration is thus a central issue in Australian political, social and cultural life. It is easy to get people worked up over issues around migration, and starting from rednecks – who advocate that only white people should migrate here – to the bleeding heart liberals who want all and sundry welcomed, you can find every shade of opinion vented in some forum or the other.

In recent days, people detained at immigration centres in Australia have started protesting, often violently, against being held in these centres. The reason? They feel that their cases are taking too long to resolve. Of course, some of those who are up in arms have had their applications for refugee status rejected and face the prospect of being deported.

Others have a peculiar problem – they are stateless and hence even though their cases have been rejected, they cannot be deported as there is no country that will take them. The problem, as it exists today, is quite serious – detainees burnt down nine buildings at a detention centre in New South Wales. Some of the ringleaders are still up on the roof, refusing to come down.

The protests have spread to other parts of the country and detainees at centres in Victoria and the Northern Territory have also started protesting.

One must bear in mind that it is the poorer class of would-be migrant who comes to Australia in a leaky boat and gets detained. The more affluent come by air and are never part of the public discussion. British backpackers by the thousand overstay here but are never deemed to be part of the problem. They are rarely detained despite being as big, or probably a bigger, drain on the national economy than the detained ones.

The government is reluctant to do anything that could be seen as a throwback to the policies of the Howard government – a coalition of the Liberal and National parties. Additionally, it is dependent on the Greens for its stability so it cannot take steps that are seen as too harsh. Yet something has to be done because the situation as it stands is giving the opposition plenty of ammunition to attack the government.

A part of the problem is down to perception. The Labor party is seen as being soft on migrants – even though the practice of detention was begun by a Labor prime minister, Paul Keating. And though the last Liberal prime minister, John Howard, made lots of near-racist statements about migrants, the level of migration was never higher than under him. He knew well that he had to cater to the business lobby – which supports higher migration quotas – so he quietly increased the numbers while publicly speaking out against migration.

After Labor came to power in 2007, some of harsher policies of the Howard mob were watered down. The offshore processing of migrants was stopped and so was the practice of issuing what are called temporary protection visas.

Since 2007, the numbers coming to Australia in boats to ask for refugee status has increased – but when considered against the total number of refugee applicants worldwide, it is but a drop in the ocean. The immigration department is an inefficient organisation and processing claims takes far too long. The detention centres are run by an inefficient American organisation, Serco, and people in the centres develop mental health problems as they stay longer and longer in crowded centres.

The expressions of frustration are the effects; the cause is an inefficient system. Labor governments are not exactly renowned for their efficiency in anything and the immigration process reflects the government of the day. Not that Howard’s mob did things much better.

The solution? I think Australia should cease being a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Then nobody can rock up to the Australian border and ask for refugee status.

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