Muslim Wire

Boatpeople paint PM into corner

Posted in Business, Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 21, 2009

Greg Sheridan

If we can solve the illegal immigration problem, it will only be through Indonesia’s good offices. But just imagine for a second what an Indonesia predisposed to causing Australia trouble would be like. If Jakarta simply declined to take enforcement measures to stop people using its archipelago as a transit or launch point for travelling illegally to Australia, this would throw our nation intoconvulsions.

Indonesia, however, also offers the Rudd government a chance to remedy its failures in illegal immigration policy. The Rudd government is essentially identical to the Howard government in its policy intent, morality and even its broad methodology in dealing with illegal immigrants.

How can this be, when the government makes so much of its ending of the Pacific solution, its abolition of long-term detention camps, its abolition of temporary protection visas and the like? These things, though marginal, have encouraged people-smugglers, but this is the reverse of the government’s intent.

In this area, there is only one question that counts. Can a people-smuggler get his clients – illegal immigrants – to Australian waters and ultimate residency?

If they can, then people-smuggling will flourish. If they can’t, it will wither, because no one will pay a people-smuggler $15,000 if there is no realistic chance of getting to Australia. It’s that simple.

The Howard government tried to make sure people were intercepted before they got to Australia and then they ended up either in Indonesia, Nauru or Manus Island.

The Rudd government is determined that people will be intercepted and end up in Indonesia. Australia puts enormous amounts of money, federal police and intelligence effort into making sure this happens.

A commentator at the weekend said the Indonesian solution could only work if processing time for asylum-seekers was speeded up so that people didn’t have to spend 10 years waiting for resettlement in a Western country. In fact, exactly the reverse is the truth.

The Indonesian solution only works if there is indeed a 10-year delay in Indonesia. Illegal immigrants will be happy to wait for a considerable time in Indonesia, but 10 years is too long. If that is the delay, people-smuggling will wither. If the delay is only a few months, then it will flourish. And in flourishing it will undermine the broader immigration program, take places away from people who go through due process, and remove our control of our borders.

There are hard truths in this debate. Let me confess my own sins. When the Howard government introduced the Pacific solution, I was virulently opposed to it. I thought it was inhumane and wouldn’t work. In fact, it did work. It also became clear to me the vast majority of people intercepted were not refugees but illegal immigrants.

In saying that, I make no moral criticism of the illegal immigrants. If I were living in Sri Lanka or Afghanistan and I could pay a people-smuggler $15,000 to get me to Australia, to enjoy everything from law and order and good weather to Medicare, Centrelink and good schools, I would make that effort.

But that understandable motivation does not make a person a refugee. I think Sri Lankans generally make excellent migrants to Australia. I have always favoured a larger immigration program and a larger refugee intake, but I want Australia to choose who it takes and to do so in an orderly way.

Just being a Tamil does not make you a refugee. Moreover, if you are fleeing persecution as a Tamil in Sri Lanka, why wouldn’t you go and live in Tamil Nadu, the giant Tamil state of India, just next door to Sri Lanka? India does not persecute people for being Tamils.

The reason you would prefer Australia is because life is much better in Australia. But this is not then a question of fleeing persecution. This is an immigration aspiration that should go through the normal processes Australia applies to everyone who comes lawfully through our big and successful immigration program.

My esteemed colleague Paul Kelly argues in his The March of Patriots that there is a bargain between the Australian people and their governments. The Australian people accept a big, diverse and in many respects generous immigration program, so long as it is orderly and well controlled by the government. In this bargain neither the Australian people nor their governments are racist, bigoted or narrow minded, despite the vain moral posturing of most commentators in the past couple of weeks.

I have been writing about refugees for 30 years and one thing that has become clear to me is that the classification of someone as a refugee is a hugely subjective process. It often comes down to whether you believe someone’s claims or not, necessarily without evidence. The choice is entirely yours.

When I first got involved with this issue, with the Vietnamese boatpeople 30 years ago, I was convinced many Vietnamese were rejected as refugees who really were refugees, really were persecuted by their government. Now, administrative convenience means that almost anyone who gets to Australia and claims refugee status will be given it.

Since the Rudd government came to office, only 10 asylum-seekers who have got to Australian jurisdiction have been returned to their homeland. They were 10 Sri Lankan Catholics. Yet the majority of boatpeople will be Afghans, some Iraqis and other Muslims. On the whole, their countries won’t easily take these people back. Administrative convenience means that most such people will become permanent residents.

Last week The Australian reported allegations that two Iraqi members of the Shia Mahdi Army, who had been involved in kidnapping and torture, came to Australia as illegal immigrants and got permanent residence. It is not paranoia to be worried about such cases. If the Rudd Government does not get on top of the illegal immigration problem, the nearly 2000 who have come in little over a year will become many more thousands. This would be a disaster for Australia.

Rudd is absolutely right to take a tough line against illegal immigration. Those who criticise him for doing so and saying so, such as the normally sound Labor MP Michael Danby, or those who cannot bring themselves to embrace the Prime Minister’s language, such as Foreign Minister Stephen Smith in a remarkably evasive and feeble performance on Lateline, merely show how much better, shrewder and braver than the Labor Party Rudd is.

There is a reason this government is so dominated by its PM.

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