The tragedies off Lampedusa island, an Italian possession that is closer to North Africa than Sicily, and closer to Tunisia even than to Malta. These events have given ‘boat people’ a wider reference for us than Christmas Island. I’ve noted that the news media have varied in their use of terms: the boats that foundered were bringing ‘migrants’ or ‘illegal immigrants’, according to the speaker of the moment (‘migrants’, of course, or ‘asylum seekers’ on the ABC). The  ‘immigrants’ were, as it happened, largely ‘illegal’, though some may have been truly seeking political asylum, not simply economic advantage. More about Lampedusa at the end.

We tend to forget about the much wider context of illegal immigration in our microscopic fixation on the leaky boats leaving Indonesia. How many ‘illegals’ do we have in Australia? The Wikipedia estimate is 50 – 100 thousand. Canada has about the same. In both countries the majority appear to be foreigners whose visas have expired, but who have not left the country. They don’t seem to make the news very often. But both Australia and Canada are in the chicken-feed department in this domain. The following figures come from Wikipedia entries. It is well to remember that, almost by definition, there can’t be really accurate numbers about illegal activities — they are all estimates, and I’ve given the range, where a range seems sensible.

Brazil: 200,000 to 600,000

Dominican Republic: about 1 million (from neighbouring Haiti)

Libya: around 2 million

Malaysia: 800,000

the UK: 550,000 to 950,000

South Africa: around 5 million

Russia: 10 to 12 million

India: less than a million to 20 million

the USA: 7 to 20 million

What counts as ‘illegal’, and what if anything the appropriate government will do about it, differ from country to country. It is really difficult to maintain secure borders, though the US has tried to build a fence between itself and Mexico where the common border is on land (the Rio Grande forms part of the border). Israel is doing much the same. India is doing the same on the border with Bangladesh. Where they can, nations do their best to secure their borders, and for all sorts of reasons — smuggling, terrorism, drugs, as well as illegal immigration.

Something like 43 million people are not living where they used to be. Not all of them want to come to Australia, by any means, and about a third of them seem to be still in their own countries, but driven out of their homes by internal or external violence.  Again, almost by definition, the ones who get on to boats have more money than those who are stuck in refugee camps and depend utterly on charity and foreign aid.

The EU’s expansion has increased the mobility of people, because it is internally borderless. Get into Europe, by hook or by crook, and no one will impede your passage. You might have trouble in getting work, and in France you have to have ‘papers’. Yes, they can be forged, but that costs a lot of money. Local citizens are not enamoured of immigrants even as ‘guest-workers’. I can recall some vitriolic comments in Denmark about these people, who were seen as happy to accept all the benefits of the social welfare system of a high-taxed, prosperous country. It is hard, sometimes virtually impossible, for the immigrants to acquire citizenship, too. They are, predictably, involved in more crime than the locals, who can be tough on them, as occurred in Russia the other day.

Back to Lampedusa. I ought to have heard more about this little place, but it is easy enough to find out about what has happened there over the years. Y0u can read about it here. Since 2001 the little island has been a primary point of entry into Europe for immigrants, mostly illegal ones, and about 50,000 arrived there between 2011 and 2011 — that’s about as many boat people that Australia has  ‘welcomed’ since 1975, or the lower limit of the number of ‘illegals’ we have now.

As has happened with us, the temporary accommodation facilities were overcrowded, and twice burned down by the inmates, in 2009 and 2011. Only 5,000 people normally live on Lampedusa, and they were often outnumbered by the arrivals. Fights broke out. The author of the article from which I have drawn these data summarised the situation like this: The reality is that this was a pseudo-humanitarian crisis: the illegals overwhelmingly were not refugees but economic migrants. What’s for years been called an “emergency” continues. Every day there are new arrivals.

I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who has to try and deal with the increased mobility of the world’s human population. But as a staunch defender of the ‘nation-state’, I do think that we who have formed the society we call ‘Australia’ have a proper interest in protecting what  we have helped to shape, and that means dealing sensibly and firmly with people who want to come here. We can’t take everybody who wants to come.

There is an immigration process. There is also a refugee process. People who want to come to Australia because ‘life is better’ here are not necessarily ‘refugees’ seeking ‘political asylum’.   And there are procedures set up to allow the authorities to decide which group the intending immigrants belongs to, and how to test their qualifications.

We do take 15,000 or so clearly agreed ‘refugees’ every year. It has been proposed to lift that number to 20,000. But surely the people most deserving of that assistance are the ones most in need. As I have argued above, the boat people have enough money to buy a passage on a boat. Yes, there are genuine refugees form political violence among them. But the notion that all boat people are asylum seekers seems empty of meaning to me, whether in Christmas Island or Lampedusa.

And as I have written before, those who are seen as genuine refugees should be assisted as quickly as possible to make their new lives in our country, and not kept in detention as some kind of punishment. What do we do with others? There are no simple answers.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    It appears that “asylum seekers” in Australia have been coached on the “correct” answers to give in interviews with immigration officers who then determine whether they are “refugees” purely on the basis of their answers with very little or no other evidence, particularly as most applicants have deliberately destroyed their documents beforehand. Thus their 90% or so “success” rate.

    I’m very sceptical of claims that most are in fear for their lives, as distinct from wanting a better life here with our very generous social services.

    I attend U3A discussion groups where most people simply don’t recognise any distinction between the concept of refugees and economic immigrants.

  • Peter Lang says:


    But as a staunch defender of the ‘nation-state’, I do think that we who have formed the society we call ‘Australia’ have a proper interest in protecting what we have helped to shape, and that means dealing sensibly and firmly with people who want to come here. We can’t take everybody who wants to come.

    I agree!

  • Alister McFarquhar says:

    I fear the future prosperity of Rich Countries with expanding welfare programs depends on immigrants to do the dirty work

    Survival in places like Syria of which more in future depends on migration

    Migration must be the main factor in economic wellbeing for the forseeable future

    Isnt immigration the best hope for a thriving Australia?

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