September 18, 2011

Refugee program versus free pass for illegal immigration

I have always found it astonishing that more than 90% of people with the money and the wherewithal to get themselves, or their children, on a boat (sans visa) to Australia, are eventually assessed as being genuine refugees.  It's an extraordinary figure, and one that's never discussed.

Hundreds of thousands of refugees, with no home, no means, no future, languish in camps (yep, that's right, in camps - they're not allowed to roam free in other countries either), with no chance of grabbing one of the 14,000 places in the Australian annual intake.  Most of those places are now taken by people arriving in boats (and you wonder why the boats keep coming!).

Sure, 60,000 people over stay their visas each year, having arrived by plane, and a few of those people eventually apply for and are given a refugee place, but most of them are wayward tourists, or just a bit slack, or maybe hoping to stick around and no one will notice .... they're opportunistic, as opposed to even pretending to be refugees.

I'll be blunt here, so that I can't be accused of fudging it:  I do not believe that more than 90% of people arriving by boat are genuine refugees.  Never have, never will.  The figure is too staggeringly high.

What a happy coincidence that pretty much every person who can pay to get on a boat is a real refugee, under the legal definition.  It's bullshit of the highest order.  We all know this, but we acquiesce to the notion that the people in question are "so desperate" and "are willing to risk their lives" ergo, they must be refugees.  Those arguments are emotive, not rational; they don't even make a tiny bit of sense.  It's absolute rubbish.  A criminal will risk 30 years in jail to protect his drug dealing territory - does that mean he or she is a deeply committed entrepreneur, a deeply valuable business person, willing to roll the dice, willing to risk their life?  Come on, it's stupid.  People take no end of risks in pursuit of a short cut or some easy solution to reaching whichever goal they have in mind.  The sincerity of their urge doesn't make the pursuit laudable, genuine, good or deserving, otherwise I would have won first prize in lotto by now.

As I rarely have the time, and often lack the patience, it's always a delight when I stumble across a substantive piece of journalism that sets out in logical and thorough manner my own thoughts, particularly if on a topic that has long bothered me.  Back in April, Greg Sheridan wrote just such a piece (see, it's September, and I'm only now getting around to cutting and pasting - nearly five months!), couched in terms of his conversion away from the cause of multiculturalism; it's much more than that though.  The framing of the issue is far narrower than the content, which takes a clean scalpel to the matter of our refugee intake (who we are taking) and, in particular, the high number of Muslims being processed and accepted as refugees, most of whom arrive by boat.

Sheridan argues that multiculturalism has failed, and he is right, it was never a concept that could succeed; we'd all need to know what it meant if we were ever going to measure the extent to which it was a worthy and successful credo.

But he argues a great deal more, including that the people arriving by boat are not the refugees we should be accepting; that the intake of Muslims as refugees has gone through the roof and isn't warranted by any definition of refugee; that Muslim refugees are uniquely socially problematic, demonstrably so, and that we have to stop this and stop it now.

He presents the argument, in other words - one I have long believed - that our refugee program has become (especially via the continual flow of boats) nothing more worthy than an illegal immigration program:  we are not admitting refugees, we are permitting illegal immigration, and most of those immigrants are Muslims who aren't fleeing anything in particular.  I must emphasize that these are not Sheridan's words, he is far more delicate, and also more convincing.

Sheridan presents his case carefully and with deep understanding, having clearly contemplated the matter for decades, so lets dip in a little ... and do read the full piece, if you've still got an open mind on the matter, which most people don't.

A worthwhile reminder from Sheridan, his thoughts circa,  The Australian, November 1996:
There is nothing in multiculturalism that could cause any worry to any normal person. Multiculturalism officially promotes an overriding loyalty to Australia, respect for other people's rights and Australian law, recognition of people's cultural origins, respect for diversity, the need to make maximum economic use of the skills people bring to Australia and equity in access to government services.

What mostly passes for "debate" about multiculturalism is really the psychology of paranoia as a political style. That is why opinion polls on these issues are often self-contradictory. People will say they think there should be fewer migrants from Asia, but that the policy should be non-discriminatory. Or people might say that everybody should speak English, but then denounce funding for multiculturalism when its chief expenditure is to teach migrants English.
And Sheridan now, April 02, 2011:
The three great settler immigrant societies of Australia, the US and Canada have not seen an anti-Muslim backlash on anything like that of Europe's. Australia, the US and Canada are more successful immigrant societies than those of Europe in the modern era, but the usual self-congratulatory explanation we offer for this is simply that our settlement practices are superior to that of Europe.

There is some truth in all this, and in any event it's a mostly benign myth, but it doesn't really stand up to scrutiny as a serious intellectual explanation.

Certainly the presence or absence of multiculturalism as a state policy seems to have no effect. Canada practices multiculturalism. Australia did for a while but then stopped and is now, apparently, half-heartedly starting again, according to a recent speech by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen.

The US, on the other hand, does not practice multiculturalism, yet is the biggest and most successful immigrant society in history -- more than 310 million people live there from every corner of the globe.

Here in Australia Bowen, in his February 16 [this year] speech, titled "The genius of Australian multiculturalism", posited the comforting notion that it is the superiority of our own multiculturalism policies that have made so big a difference between us and the tensions of Europe.

I'm afraid Bowen's speech had the opposite effect on me. It completed my transformation.
Whereas once I wholeheartedly supported multiculturalism, I now think it's a failure and the word should be abandoned.

It's very unclear that the term made any positive contribution to the happy settlement of migrants. In the 1990s and beyond  .... Bob Carr abolished the NSW ethnic affairs commission. He felt the constant repetition of ethnic this and ethnic that was not productive and he didn't think migrants needed a special bureaucracy to watch over them. ...

Community relations is a more inclusive term than ethnic. It includes everybody, not just migrants.

Similarly the immigration department acquired the word citizenship in its title and lost the word multiculturalism. This was a natural and sensible evolution and one that reflected the maturing, the normalisation, of a welcoming diversity within Australia.

But at the declaratory level, European multiculturalism has also stressed the national language and a commitment to democracy.

Bowen accuses Europe of not welcoming immigrants in the way Australia has.

Certainly some European nations have not been generous in making citizenship easily available to immigrants in the way Australia has. Citizenship is the great integrating instrument of government policy in Australia, the US and in most immigrant societies.

But Bowen's broad accusation is not true for most of Europe. Certainly in Britain migrants can become citizens. Similarly, it would be absurd to suggest, at the official level at least, that Britain has not had an officially welcoming attitude to immigrants. London, with New York, is one of the great, diverse metropolises of the world.

And most important, while all of western Europe seems to be suffering a variety of the same immigration problem, European nations have had radically different settlement policies.
Britain has practised multiculturalism, France has not.

There are two obvious, logical flaws in the way Bowen treats immigration into Europe.

The first is that he puts the entire burden for the success or failure of an immigrant community's experience down to the attitude of the host society and places absolutely no analytical weight at all on the performance and behaviour of the immigrants themselves.

Second, the problems that Bowen is talking about are problems with Muslim immigrants, not with immigrants generally. Chinese and non-Muslim Indian immigrants have been immensely successful in Britain. Indeed, being Indian in Britain is extremely chic.

These minorities for the most part have done OK in France, too. Certainly immigrants to Britain from the rest of Europe don't display anything like the alienation of a serious minority of Muslim immigrants.

So this must, logically, lead to one extremely inconvenient, politically incorrect and desperately fraught question. Could it be that the main difference between Europe, with its seething immigration problems, and the US, Canada and Australia, with their success, is not actually a difference based on some footling interpretation of multiculturalism?
There is one other variable that is consistent with the results. The US, Canada and Australia have far smaller Muslim migrant communities as a percentage of their total populations than do most of the troubled nations of Europe. Could this be the explanation?

Several trends in Australian society give pause to wonder whether we, all unintentionally and all fast asleep, may be heading away from the US-Canada-Australia success story and towards a European future. That would be a very bad outcome for Australia.

Discussing these issues is very difficult. It goes without saying that most Muslims in Australia are perfectly fine, law-abiding citizens. The difficulty with discussing Muslim immigration problems is that you don't want to make people feel uncomfortable because of their religion.

For Ruddock, who had argued very strongly on behalf of the Vietnamese, there were two moments that told him things had changed.

One came in a coastal Vietnamese city, when he met a manufacturing boss, who was also a senior figure in the local Communist Party. He was looking after his grandchildren because his son and daughter-in-law had left as boatpeople, trying to win the prize of resettlement in the US, Canada or Australia. That certainly did not make them bad people, but neither did it make them genuine refugees. The outflow of real refugees had ended and the refugee system for the Vietnamese had become a channel for immigration.

The second epiphany for Ruddock came when members of the Vietnamese community asked him why the government was admitting so many former Viet Cong to Australia as refugees. Being a former Viet Cong doesn't make you a bad person, even in the eyes of a South Vietnam partisan like me. But neither does it mean logically that you are a refugee from your own political force.

Because of my passionate commitment to the refugee issue, it took me a long time to wake up to the routine scamming of refugee processes today.

The Vietnamese outflow ended before I faced up to the change, and when the Muslim boatpeople started to arrive in Australia I mistakenly applied my old paradigm to the new situation.

Christopher Caldwell's book, Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, the best book of any kind on public policy I have read, establishes definitively that this has been overwhelmingly a determined illegal immigration, not a refugee question.

The same is happening in northern Australia now, and as the Gillard government loses control of the situation, the number of illegal immigrants, almost all Muslim, will increase, exactly replicating the dynamics of Europe's disaster, though of course on a much smaller scale.

So while I remain an advocate of a bigger immigration program, and would be happy to have the refugee quota enlarged, I am now a strong critic of lax borders and allowing illegal immigrants to turn up without papers and then settle permanently. [Ditto! - Ed]

Caldwell's book, along with the evidence of my own eyes, also convinced me that many North Africans were not going to Europe to embrace European values but to continue their North African life, with its values, at a European living standard and at the expense of the European taxpayer.

This is the only explanation consistent with the fact other immigrant communities, which may have experienced difficult circumstances in the first generation, don't display the same characteristics in the second generation.

But there is a deeper reason as well. As the great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, has written: "The community of Islam was church and state in one, with the two indistinguishably interwoven."

This isn't just a theoretical observation. It means that imams at mosques tend to be preaching about politics, and doing so from a cosmology deeply influenced by paranoia and conspiracy.
Many Australian Islamic institutions receive funding from Saudi Arabia, but I know from my work in Southeast Asia and Europe that the Saudis almost always fund an extremist interpretation of Islam.

To have concerns about these matters is not racism or xenophobia. It is reasonable.

It may also be that when young men of Islamic background experience failure and alienation they are much more readily prone to entrepreneurs of identity who offer them purpose through the jihadi ideology, which has a large overlap with what they hear at the mosque and what they see on Arabic TV.

This is simply not true for Buddhists or Confucians or Sikhs or Jews or Christians, and to pretend so, to make all religions seem equal, is to simply deny reality.

However, the Koran itself contains numerous injunctions to violent jihad and suppression of infidels. It also contains passages against violence and against compulsion in religion.

These things are to a considerable extent matters of interpretation but it is undeniable that at the very least a sizeable minority of Muslims choose an extremist interpretation.

How can Australia sensibly take account of all this while maintaining a non-discriminatory immigration program? Three obvious courses suggest themselves.

In the formal immigration program, there should be a rigid adherence to skills qualifications so that the people who come here are well educated, easily employable and speak good English.
The inflow of illegal immigrants by boat in the north, almost all Muslim, mostly unskilled, should be stopped.

Within the formal refugee and humanitarian allocation of 13,500 places a year, a legitimate stress should be placed on need but also on the ability to integrate into Australian society.

And, finally, we simply should not place immigration officers in the countries with the greatest traditions of radicalism.

A few years ago there was an informal view across government that very few visas should be issued to people from Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, as these were the three likeliest sources of extremism.

These sorts of discussions take place all the time among senior officials, politicians and others. But I have never encountered a policy area in which private and public positions are so different.  

It is right to be sensitive and avoid needless offence.

It is wrong to avoid reality altogether in such an important area of national policy.

No one in Europe, 25 years ago, thought they would be in the mess they're in today.

Australia has been a successful immigration country. But the truth is not all immigrants are the same. And it may be much easier than people think to turn success into failure.
How I lost faith in multiculturalism - Greg Sheridan 


  1. "Sure, 60,000 people over stay their visas each year, having arrived by plane, and a few of those people eventually apply for and are given a refugee place, but most of them are wayward tourists, or just a bit slack, or maybe hoping to stick around and no one will notice .... they're opportunistic, as opposed to even pretending to be refugees."

    And taxpayers aren't supporting them.

  2. Solomon10:33 PM

    The acceptance rate is unremarkable. I believe they are refugees not because their mode of arrival says anything about them but because their claims have been individually assessed for consistency, credibility and against known facts about their countries of origin, in an arduous (and not necessarily sympathetic) administrative process.

    Islam, multiculturalism and illegal immigration don't really have anything to do with it.

    Most of the 'places' are not taken up by boat arrivals.

    Fun facts from the Australian Parliamentary Library:

    Successful onshore applicants (boat and air arrivals) usually only make up a relatively small proportion of the total number of refugees accepted by Australia each year—usually in the region of 17 to 20 per cent (except for 2000–01 and 2009–10, when the numbers were higher due to an increase in the number of boat arrivals).

    Over the last ten years, approximately 13 000 places have been granted under Australia’s Humanitarian Program each year:

    * due to an increase in boat arrivals, 40.6 per cent of the 13 733 Humanitarian Program grants in 2000–01; and 32.9 per cent of the 13 770 grants in 2009–10 were to onshore applicants (boat and air arrivals).[41]
    * only 19 per cent of the 13 507 humanitarian grants in 2008–09 and 17 per cent of the 13 014 visas granted in 2007–08 were protection visas granted under the onshore component.

  3. Solomon10:45 PM

    Also you've over-estimated the annual quota by 250 souls; although the intake does seem to inch ever higher above 13,750. It is comforting to me that this happens, that it isn't just a question of numbers, accounting and funds, and that somewhere special provision has been made for somebody who needed it.

  4. Sol – yes, I rounded up … so sue me.

    On the other hand, my bold statement about the other figures was WRONG, and should be corrected … in due course.

    “The report said there were 2172 asylum claims lodged by boat people last year, compared with 228 in 2008-09 and 21 in 2007-08.”

    A figure I recently read was 6000 last year, from boat arrival applicants … I suspect I misunderstood or failed to read closely; whatever, I have grabbed the wrong end of the stick. If I remember where I kept that piece I’ll update / revisit …

    The larger number accepted from unauthorised arrivals is still by plane.

    Cannot agree with you about the years and years of careful plodding process followed by public servants Sol: after three years of careful consideration, they’d let Satan in … truly, I do know how that goes, and I do understand how the brief but ambiguous UN conventions could be applied in no end of flexible manners, so long as the individual comes up with … a story, any story (just as some Vietnamese did all those years ago).

    And no: it’s not plausible or probable that more than 90% who turn up in a non-authorised manner happen to be – ta da – compliant refugees! Most are men, too, also putting paid to the probability of this absurd statistic (women the world over are subject to far worse conditions and persecutions than men, as a general statement).

    I mean probable in the true, mathematically calculated sense.

    It also matters hugely the origins and beliefs of people we accept; statements to the contrary are wilful stupidity. Two aspects will always be morally relevant: the willingness of the community to accept and welcome those people; and the willingness and ability of the individuals and collective incoming to become part of our society, our community. When either side of that coin is absent, it’s unethical to continue to accept those people – for the good of society and for their own wellbeing (there are other countries …).