Shen Narayanasamy

Like all great cons, this one starts with the numbers.

At their panic-inducing peak in 2013, boat arrivals brought 25,173 people seeking safety to Australia. Over the same period we welcomed 818,863 people on a variety of long-stay, temporary and permanent visas … without anyone batting an eyelid. In one fortnight, more people arrived in Australia to work, study, and live here than arrived by boat that entire year.

John Howard, the deeply conservative leader of a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ Australia, more than doubled Australia’s intake of migrants. Proportionately, his intake was higher than during any other period of immigration in our post-Federation history. And from a time in the mid-1980s when almost 1 in 5 people we welcomed was on a humanitarian basis, that humanitarian intake flatlined to 1 in 50 by 2007.

Howard’s shift continues. Australia has moved from being a settler migrant nation to a temporary migrant nation. From a nation built on immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism to one that in large part effectively treats immigration as a tool for a workforce of non-citizens.

I don’t remember John Howard talking about doubling our immigration intake. In his 2001 victory speech, he uttered not a word about it, or about a wholesale shift to temporary migration. If we’re confused, perhaps we’re supposed to be. Immigration specialist and sociologist Katherine Betts commented in 2005:

“The Howard government has won many voters from the Labor Party by appealing to patriotic values while, at the same time, responding to pressure from business interests for a higher migration intake. So far, the electoral contradictions inherent in the government’s immigration policy have escaped the attention of most Coalition voters, and of most political commentators.”

Nearly a decade later in the 2013 election, there were signs the Coalition was getting its wires crossed.

Fiona Scott, a Liberal candidate for the Western Sydney seat of Lindsay, said to an ABC reporter: “[Asylum seekers are] a hot topic here because our traffic is overcrowded.” After years of her party’s open-door immigration policy on the one hand, and the dehumanisation of asylum seekers on the other, you could forgive Scott’s confusion about who exactly those pesky foreigners clogging up traffic were.

The conservative leader of the day, Tony Abbott, made no effort to clear things up. “Obviously”, said Abbott, “when you’ve got something like 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat that’s a big number.” The fact that 50,000 people creates nowhere near the same pressure as 800,000 was irrelevant.

The current Prime Minister has a more artful argument. Two weeks ago, Malcolm Turnbull told the UN:

“Addressing irregular migration through secure borders has been essential in creating the confidence that the government can manage migration in a way that mitigates risk and focuses humanitarian assistance on those who need it most.”

Public support for immigration has stayed largely positive. But where is Malcolm Turnbull’s evidence that support for his immigration program exists with the knowledge of the major shifts in intake and details of the make-up of the migration program? Every poll I’ve seen on immigration in the last 15 years blandly asks whether you support current immigration levels of not, with no historical context or current numbers.

There are 3 possible reasons why both major parties haven’t trumpeted the success of their support for a massive immigration intake.

The first is that to speak about big immigration is to empower the Hansonites. Why say the magic number of immigrants out loud? What if Pauline Hanson hears us? There is clearly a concern that if Australians realised how many people came to this country each year, they would reject those numbers.

But, and this leads us to reason 2, it is easier to win elections by stoking fears around a small number of people who arrive by boat than by mounting the case to an anxious public about the benefits of high (often uncapped) levels of immigration. Corner off a small number among the 800,000 to be the repository of our fear and the target of our political scapegoating. It serves a purpose.

The third reason comes from the driving source behind the shift in our migration program. Big business supports our new migration program. They argued for it behind-the-scenes and in dense and jargon-heavy submissions. But will business get stuck into a bitter public debate? As Henry Sherrell, an ex-bureaucrat and adviser to the Migration Council of Australia puts it with no small degree of irritation:

“I’ve worked in and around migration policy for the best part of eight years and I’m increasingly becoming convinced the big business community in Australia doesn’t have the will or the ability to prosecute a public argument on migration. Almost meekly, they sit by the sidelines and watch as others shape discourse and policy.”

But the silence doesn’t convince the demagogues, it doesn’t help our migrants and it robs us all. It hasn’t worked.

You can’t confusingly give the impression of secure borders while overseeing the largest proportionate intake of migrants Australia has ever seen without the population noticing. Hanson is back. And unlike the two major parties she’s not limiting the fear-mongering to “boat people.” If your whole strategy is based on victimising a helpless minority to distract the public reality, someone will eventually come along who can play that game much better than you.

Meanwhile, wholesales changes that have been made to the migration system with little coverage, debate or discussion. In dark places, bad things flourish. Our migration system is vulnerable to corruption and crime. The 7/11 scandal blew open just one case study of a business building enormous profits from underpaying and overworking vulnerable temporary workers and international students.

So who then, is benefiting from the silence? Not immigrants. Not those seeking family reunion visas — the wait now stands at around 25 years. Not 457 visa holders. Not international students. Not even the Australian public who, in the absence of any public debate around immigration levels, understandably think there is something to fear about refugees. And not the asylum seekers arriving on boats to our razor wire and turnbacks, our fear and our failure.

In the federal election, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton tripped over a political fault-line. An insult about refugees not speaking English was taken as a slight against all migrants. But more than that, he exposed a contradiction only obvious when the migration con is revealed. For in a year when more than 800,000 migrants were welcomed to Australia, how did 25,000 fleeing for their lives on leaky boats constitute a crisis? Both parties gravely warn of dastardly ‘economic migrants’. Yet at the same time, they invite hundreds of thousands of them each year.

Within days, Dutton shifted back to the predictable ground: Offshore detention may be harsh, but it’s the only way to save lives at sea. Because of the utter silence around our immigration intake, we believe it. We’re oblivious to the alternatives. And we don’t ask the very people whose journey took them across rough seas to our shores.

Ali is a Syrian citizen with family living in Australia. He escaped the nightmare of Homs and tried to secure a family reunion visa. There was a 20 year waiting list. His family in Australia put in application after application to no avail. After refusing to use his skills as an engineer for a corrupt and brutal regime, Ali tried to apply for a skilled migrant visa. Because he’s from a war-torn country, he was flagged as a potential future asylum seeker, and unsuccessful. He tried to get his son a fully-paid university place as an international student. Again flags and delays.

This is the sickness of it. Fleeing danger not only doesn’t help Ali, it precludes him from the other pathways to immigration. We’ve set up an entire system designed to deter potential asylum seekers from any way of getting here other than through a flat-lining humanitarian intake.

So Ali ran, unfortunately, straight into Kevin Rudd and his PNG solution. Ali has been languishing on Manus Island for three years.

His story is not unusual. Advocates talk all the time about so-and-so whose cousin is in Melbourne, or Perth, or Wollongong. Surveys of refugees and migrants by the International Organisation of Migration have found that for some groups crossing the Mediterranean, over 70% had a first or second order relative in their destination country.

If you are one of these people, there are three realistic options: lengthy encampment in a refugee camp, urban destitution in a neighbouring country, or a dangerous journey. For people seeking safety through an attempted dangerous journey to Australia, they face a fourth fate: mandatory, indefinite detention in remote offshore camps.

When you ration something, you create a black market. We’ve artificially rationed safety, by utilising a system of detention and deterrence to actively block the safe and usual immigration pathways for those who need them most. So if there is a refugee crisis in Australia, it’s partly of our own making.

How do we construct an alternative to Manus and Nauru?

First, remove barriers to our normal immigration program for refugees: facilitate access to family reunion,  labour migration, and international student places from source countries like Syria. We’ve done this before.

Second, re-establish Australia’s participation in humanitarian resettlement from our region.Why don’t we use some of the roughly $3 billion that we spend on detention, and up our intake in the humanitarian program from our region to 50,000 per year, focusing it on the most vulnerable, those least likely to be able to be a part of the rest of our migration program — quite often women and children.

Thirdly, we work together with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and offer an aid package for a Stability Programme, an initiative that could provide legal rights of stay, an ability for people languishing in Indonesia and Malaysia to work, to study, and to live a life while they are awaiting review and processing. Spend $1 billion per year on this aid program, and it would make a remarkable difference to the stability of people moving across our region.

I can hear the government response now: But it’s a dangerous journey, what about the people dying at sea? It is dangerous. So we must offer alternatives to the journey.

We have a huge migration program. We are already a diverse country. Immigration is an enormous social good, but we keep making it hard for people to really be a part of our community. We put them on temporary visas, we block them repeatedly from getting here through safe pathways, we detain them. We talk about some immigrants as a threat, and others as good. We say get in the queue to Ali from Syria, and when he tries to do that, as best he can as bombs rain down on his house — we block him, we detain him, and we expose him to horrific expensive abuse.

The silence must stop. The con has to be ripped open. There is a way to do this right, but because we are  afraid to talk about it, we are doing it so very wrong.

This is an abbreviated version of a speech given by Shen Narayanasamy at the Wheeler Centre’s Di Gribble Argument on Tuesday night. She is presenting it again at the Wheeler Centre tomorrow night. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey