On a quiet Saturday in August, Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews slipped out the news that Australia had altered the makeup of its refugee intake , including reducing the quota from Africa.

Included in the statement was the news that Australia had reduced the intake from the Africa region from around 70 per cent two years ago to 30 per cent. The Minister stated that this reflected:

“… an improvement in conditions in some countries and an increase in the number of people returning to their country of origin. Processing of applications this programme year will primarily be for applications already received while keeping open a limited capacity for some new applications that are particularly compelling.”

Refugee groups approved of the mix, and some noted that the Immigration Minister had refrained from politicising the issue. The African community, while disappointed with the reduced intake and the implications that had for reuniting with family members, breathed a collective sigh of relief that the news wasn’t used as a political football.

Earlier in the year the Sudanese community had experienced a storm of negative headlines about crime in their community , care of statements from Pauline Hanson and subsequently Andrews, despite Victoria Police stating that Sudanese people were not disproportionately represented in crime rates.

But with this latest announcement, the Minister had correctly pointed out that the refugee mix was based on the needs and numbers of refugees around the world, after all, traditionally the decision has nothing to do with how effectively refugees will integrate.

Until now.

Yesterday Kevin Andrews for the first time announced that the reduction in the Africa intake was also based on perceived integration problems:

NEIL MITCHELL:

Okay, I understand that on the basis that there might be people more needy, that, that the refugee intake is adjusted, but it would be the first time that we, would it not be the first time we’ve adjusted the intake on the basis of, of a race?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well it’s not on a basis of a race as such. It’s simply on the basis of whether or not people can settle in Australia. I mean, I…

NEIL MITCHELL:

But there’s a decision on the race, aren’t we saying, ‘well you know the Sudanese people are having trouble settling therefore we’ll have fewer come in?’

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Well I don’t know what decisions have been taken in the past, over, you know, the 50 to 60 years of our immigration programme, but certainly it seemed to me, and looking at it when I came to this portfolio and consulting widely about it and just looking at what evidence was about, it was clear that settlement wasn’t occurring at the rate that occurred with other refugee and other migrant groups to Australia. And, as I said, I don’t see much point, if you are having problems then adding to those problems by continuing to bring more people in, I think we’ve got to deal with the people we have here now, offer more services, which we are doing with the extra $200 million, then look at it again.

NEIL MITCHELL:

So do you accept, you do accept from what you’re being told that there are problems at the moment that need addressing?

MINISTER ANDREWS:

Oh yes, I mean, I have clearly been told by a variety of sources that there are problems and, you know, we see things reported in the media as well which are, you know, a further indication of that.

Andrews had already floated the idea in his July speech to the Sydney Institute ‘Citizenship – committing to a way of life’  in which he announced the Government’s decision to “to put greater emphasis on the capacity of potential migrants to integrate into our community.”

But the decision by an Immigration Minister to introduce integration as a factor in deciding the refugee mix is “unprecedented”, Paul Power from the Refugee Council told Crikey. “We’ve had decades of bipartisan support for this program. I don’t even know of another incident like this [in which refugee intake is based on this criteria] … I can’t recall anything like this … ”

“Australia’s refugee and humanitarian program in global terms is a very good program, we’re world leaders on this, to have the Minister responsible for it damaging the program in the way that he is is deeply disturbing and unnecessary,” Power said.  

David Manne from the Victorian Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre told Crikey, “The elephant in the room here is the striking or conspicuous lack of any empirical evidence to support the need for integration criteria … and testing integration in the way suggested, in this new push, is absolutely untestable.”

Victoria Police Commissioner Christine Nixon attempted to douse the fire on 3AW this morning:

CHRISTINE NIXON: I think the – when you look at the numbers we’re talking about, the young Sudanese who actually come into custody or dealt with us, only really make up about one per cent of the people we deal with and so because they’re obvious and tall and, you know, they clearly stand out more than other groups do, they look more like that’s the case. And we did hear this but when we look at the data what we’re actually seeing is that they’re not, in a sense, represented more than the proportion of them in the population.

But that’s too late to stop headlines like today’s Herald-Sun : “Full House — We close door on Africans.”

Andrews must have known of the effect that his statement would make. After the Minister lit the spark yesterday, the media ran with it, here are the mention stats from the last 24 hours according to Media Monitors:

So while the Sudanese community braces iteself for the side effects of another barrage of bad publicity, refugee groups are asking: will Australia’s successful and decades old refugee program now be dictated by tabloid headlines?

This morning Crikey asked the Minister’s office:

Given that the Minister is introducing integration as a consideration when deciding the annual refugee mix, and his suggestion that this was a consideration when reducing the Africa quota, what empirical evidence is the Minister basing his decision on?

But they didn’t get back to us before deadline.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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