Ramdas Sankuran

Ramdas Sankaran

The “Border Protection” being peddled by the ALP and the Coalition is a quaint concept conjured up by wily politicians to distract us from the issues that really matter.

So it is pertinent to ponder, from an Australian perspective, what exactly does border constitute and what should the priority areas of foci be in terms of its protection?

Traditionally border referred to the geographic boundaries, land, water and airspace that a nation had claim to; and the main priority would have been the defence of the nation from external aggression. Customs and quarantine measures to protect agricultural, health and economic interests and immigration legislation to ensure orderly flow of people to and from Australia and to address issues of national security, infiltration by international crime syndicates etc. are much more recent areas of foci.

Globalisation and accelerating telecommunication technology have thrown up other areas that seamlessly cross over national borders and potentially create far more serious threats from a nation’s “protection” perspective. These are highlighted by the following:

In her article Tax System at risk: Treasury (The Melbourne Age 24th July 2013) Georgia Williams noted that “the Treasury has admitted it is virtually powerless to stop multinational companies such as Apple and Google dodging tax” and that it warned that “many of the risks posed by profit shifting by multinationals were underpinned by deeply entrenched features of Australia’s corporate tax system and policy developments ‘beyond Australia’s border’ or control”. The costs of managing our refugee processing and settlement are significantly lower than the tax revenue foregone as a consequence of companies such as Apple and Google dodging tax, as per figures provided in that article.

In the same edition of The Melbourne Age, Max Mason in his article “ASX goes to war on cybercrime” quoted research, which found that “53% of stock exchanges including the key global exchanges suffered a cyber attack last year; and 80% of larger exchanges experienced a cyber attack last year compared to 28% from small exchanges.” Are such threats posed to Australia not as significant as the so called threats to our border supposedly posed by asylum seekers?”

The ABC with its Freedom of Information request (which took DIAC nearly two years to action) obtained information that “showed wide-scale passport, visa and ID fraud happening in alarming numbers. For a General Skilled Migration visa class, from 23,767 visa lodgements there was a 46.9 per cent fraud rate for 2008/2009. The fraud rate was as high as 51.6 per cent in the third quarter of the 2008/09 financial year.” For Indian student visas, the DIAC documents show a 37 per cent fraud rate from 41,636 lodgements across the same time period.

The aforementioned article also highlighted the case where “a man breached Australia’s borders by entering the country under a false identity and had previously been detained and deported from Australia, after unsuccessfully applying for a protection visa, and going through all levels of appeal. He was able to subvert the numerous visa checks by simply changing his birth date. The man was eventually caught and re-deported, however the migration agent responsible for the fraudulent application was also living in Australia under a false identity.”

DIAC’s lengthy delay was scandalous but astoundingly it did not raise the ire of our political parties nor our shock jocks. Given that India is now the single largest source of migration to Australia, especially from a skilled migration perspective, how does one assess this indifferent political and media response, especially when compared to the enormous time, energy and funds that they have spent on demonising asylum seekers who have a 90% success rate in establishing on arrival in Australia, that they had been persecuted or had well founded fears of persecution on the grounds covered by the Refugee convention.

Based on these statistics, “We will decide who comes to Australia and under what circumstances” obviously is a policy that should have applied to the Indian fraudsters and not asylum seekers. But as Clementine Ford observed, ‘John Howard cultivated Australia’s cruelty towards asylum seekers, and it is he our current leaders are shamelessly trying to emulate’. In the same article Ford quoted former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser who recently wrote, “During my time in government, the Immigration Department proposed mandatory detention centres several times. We regarded the proposal as barbarous, and we rejected it.” Mandatory detention of children given its impact on their mental and physical wellbeing is nothing but state sponsored child abuse that is ironically being perpetuated by their “legal guardian”, the Minister for Immigration.

Mandatory detention is arguably only one of many barbarous proposals that the Immigration department has proposed over the years, but proposals become policy and practice only after governments adopt them. So the culpability remains not with department officials but the governments that adopt such proposals.

Migration has played an important role in the social, economic, and cultural development of Australia as a nation for decades and “positive bipartisanship” was the key ingredient that made that possible. In the 70s and 80s it was positive bipartisanship that ensured that tens of thousands of Vietnamese were able to be resettled in Australia under an orderly departure program without a reference to let alone skewed public debates on border protection.

We have had tens of thousands of “unarmed” asylum seekers arrive on our shores in recent years, and not surprisingly we are yet to be provided any empirical evidence that they have posed a risk let alone a significant risk to our national security, public order, public health, agriculture or indeed any other areas of national interests and concern, when compared to others who come to this country or indeed the Australian born.

The mode of transport whether aided by people smugglers or otherwise is irrelevant to determination of refugee status. But thanks to the scandalous “negative bipartisanship”, asylum seekers have not just become the main focus of border protection but have virtually eclipsed far more important factors. People smugglers or “death merchants” as our politicians describe them have now displaced all other concerns of relevance to the “protection” of our borders from our national interests perspective. Don’t the ALP and the Coalition have an obligation to inform the Australian electorate what policies they have to address the significant risks that the Treasury has identified with regard to our Tax system, or what their policies are with regard to Cybercrime and ensuring the integrity of our immigration system so that it is not subject to large scale fraudulent rorting?

The ALP has now shamelessly lurched to the right of Genghis Khan in outsourcing our obligations under international law to PNG, Nauru etc. and the wedged Coalition has gone even further by announcing it will appoint a new three-star general (i.e. at the level of our Service Chiefs) to lead a $10 million “taskforce” involving agencies already dealing with the asylum seeker issue. If a three star General is required to deal effectively with unarmed asylum seekers, I wonder how many Generals with 3, 4 and 5 stars Australia will require to address the risks relating to our Tax system, Cybercrime and the integrity of our immigration system, let alone a serious threat of a naval aggression by a third country?

If the ALP and the Coalition want to stop the drownings of asylum seekers they should logically locate off-shore processing centres in Indian and not Pacific Ocean countries. Thankfully, political leaders of poorer countries of the world such as Pakistan, Turkey, Jordan and many in Africa have not followed the woeful example of our leaders in insisting that some sort of an orderly process should occur when people flee persecution on various grounds. If Australia is to achieve the ‘orderly process’ that it craves, it won’t be by lurches to the right or a race to the bottom but by a mature bipartisan approach similar to the one that addressed asylum seeker inflows from Vietnam in the 70s and 80s.

The global financial crisis highlighted Australia as being the best manager of a national economy in the industrialised world. It’s time we also showed the industrialised world that we have what it takes to shoulder a fair share of the global refugee burden. Australia is ranked third globally for overall permanent resettlement of refugees after America and Canada, but this positive record cannot be seen in isolation of factors such as:

  • Like USA and Canada, Australia has had an active immigration policy for decades with refugee intake being an integral part of it, unlike the vast majority of nations.
  • Resettlement is just one of many responses that the world has adopted to address refugee flows but it addresses the “settlement” of only a miniscule proportion of the global refugee population.
  • Australian government funded research showing that Humanitarian resettlement has brought enormous economic, civic and social benefits to Australia. “The literature review found that while there may be short-term costs as refugees are resettled and adjust to their new surroundings, after successful integration they make permanent cultural, social and economic contributions. Humanitarian entrants are often entrepreneurial as they establish themselves in a new environment – in the year 2000, five of Australia’s eight billionaires were people whose families had originally come to the country as refugees. Their impact has been positive in regional and rural Australia through providing labour and stimulating economic growth and service delivery. Available sources point to above average rates of success in education and employment for children of Humanitarian entrants.”
  • Malaysia which is ranked 64 out of 186 nations on the UN Human Development Index (a measure of education, health and life expectancy) now has 197,600 registered as seeking asylum and Australia, which is ranked second on the same index, has only 9596 registered as seeking asylum i.e. less than 5% of the Malaysian registration. (Melbourne Age 24th July 2013)

Lastly, if every asylum seeker knew how to contact the people smuggler who put them on the boats to Australia it beggars belief that relevant authorities in Australia and Indonesia, with their sophisticated intelligence capacity and substantial resources have not been able to identify them let alone destroy and not just disrupt their nefarious activities.