My second theme in this little series is ‘unwanted immigration’. There is a substantial body of opinion in our country that would like to see all immigration stopped, for some because they think we already have too many people, and for others because they worry about the values that the new immigrants bring with them. No doubt there’s a bit of racism — ethnocentrism — there too. There is in any society.
But my focus is on the daily drama of the boat people, asylum-seekers, illegals, the desperate — call them what you will — who set out in awful boats from Indonesia and then get to Christmas Island, or sink and are rescued, or sink and and drown. It is a drama that shows how powerless governments can be, and the realisation is growing that not only can Julia Gillard and her government not stop this from happening, but Tony Abbott and his government would be no more successful.
I wrote about all this nearly a year ago, and my opinions haven’t changed. At last count there were 44 million ‘displaced people’ around the world, of whom about a third are defined as ‘refugees’, and fewer than a million as ‘asylum seekers’. We take in about 14,000 each year of the refugees, which is creditable in international terms. And the ones we take in are the truly destitute, those with no money, no prospects, and no hope. The offer of a place in Australia must seem to those chosen like a shaft of light from Heaven, and on the face of it those who come here that way are incredibly grateful, and work hard to justify their place in our society. They have a lot to overcome when they get here.
Much of what has happened over the last ten years in our country over this issue has embarrassed me. We look selfish and callous, and behave that way. We redefine the legal territory of Australia in order to prevent the boat people having access to our laws. Yet I have no alternative suggestion about how to prevent the small tide of unwanted immigration. It is a fact, and we had better become used to it. To that end I have a suggestion, to which I will return in a moment.
Forty years ago I had a weekly column in the now defunct National Times, and in one of those columns I played with a national security possibility — a great flood of boat people leaving South East Asia for whatever reason (famine, pestilence or plague, plus war). What would we do? How would we do it? This was the time when a trickle of boats was coming from Vietnam because of the end of the war there. I discovered some time later that my little essay had been mulled over in the various staff colleges that service our armed forces. It was just a think piece, and I had no sense of foresight that something like it might happen one day.
But it is happening, and if in the future something really bad does happen to our north, and there is sufficient warning, we could have much larger ships bringing thousands of survivors. What will we do then? We have an opportunity to learn now with a tragedy that is still on a small scale.
Most of those who come here in this way, have no ‘home’ to go back to, and can’t be sent back there. The civil unrest and recurring wars in Africa and the Middle East show no sign of ending, so it is pointless to talk about the refugees’ ‘waiting’ here until things ‘settle down’. Whether we like it or not, they are going to live among us. It would seem to make sense, then, that we equip them as quickly as possible with English language skills, training in whatever it is that they could do here that fits with what they have learned in their former country, education for their children, immunisation, and all the rest of it. The faster they begin to earn a living, the less cost they are to those who are providing the taxation.
Yes, it would be expensive. Yes, there will be grumpiness. Yes, there will be allegations that these people are stealing jobs from Australians. But unless we are going to set up concentration camps in which people actually spend the rest of their lives, sooner or later the occupants are going to become citizens of our country. What would you rather have, a next-door neighbour who spent seven years in such a camp, and hated every moment of it, especially the awful uncertainty of never knowing when it would end, or someone who was made welcome quickly and given help to become a responsible citizen?
I know what my answer would be. I am not suggesting that we abandon all the attempts to reduce the size of the problem by working with other countries in our region. But we need to remember that crossing from the mainland into Indonesia is simplicity itself, and that Indonesia has a much worse problem with illegal immigrants than we have. Our problem is relatively small in scale. We should do our best, I think, to show that we can deal with it, in a humane way. And in the long run, the cost/benefit ration would seem more favourable to us all, too.