What does the future hold for asylees in Australia?

I am a optimist when it comes to the future for Australia. The island nation of twenty three million souls is located far away from any geopolitical troubles with opposing polities. It has been gifted with British legal and economic institutions that have allowed it to enjoy stable economic growth throughout its existence.

It does face one major problem though: demographics. Despite its large expanse the continent’s population is slightly smaller than New York’s metropolitan area. The traditional argument had been that Australia is incapable of housing a larger population due to natural resource limitations. There is some in truth in this argument. Much of the continent’s arable land is in the southeastern portion of the continent and this is where most of the current population huddles around.

However limited natural resources are an insufficient explanation for why the continent has such a small population when one considers the large populations of resource starved Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan. It is more likely that Australia’s population has been held back by restrictive immigration measures instead of any natural resource limitations. Since before it attained its independence Australia pursued a ‘White Australia‘ policy that only allowed white migrants. The White Australia policy was promoted out of mix of citizenism and partly as a geopolitical measure. Australia is remote enough that it is extremely doubtful any foreign power could ever invade it, but open borders would likely see those of Asian descent quickly outnumber the current white population. For some this result would be little different than an invasion even if the new Asian migrants assimilated to Australian culture or political life.

The White Australia policy was dismantled gradually and officially removed in 1978 when the country’s immigration laws were reformed. As I have written elsewhere, Australia today enjoys some of the most liberal immigration laws when it comes to mid and high skilled migrants thanks to these reforms. It would however be wrong to praise the Australian immigration system without addressing its short comings elsewhere.

The White Australia policy has not been official policy for over three decades but the lack of a viable method for low-skilled workers to enter has acted to effectively perpetuate discrimination against non-whites. In its defense the Australian government policies discriminate against low-skilled migrants. Further research on Australia should attempt to see admission rates of skilled migrants from non-white and white countries alike to see if there is any significant statistical difference  between the two ceteris paribus. Is Australia discriminating against low skilled migrants as a round about way of keeping out non-whites? Or has Australia genuinely moved away from the past injustices of the White Australia policy?Unlawful Non-Citizens by Source Country

If Australia were closer to its neighbors it would likely house a large illegal immigration population from its poorer neighbors. Thanks to its geographic remoteness though the country has only 60,900 illegal aliens as of 2012, equal to less than .3% of its total population. The overwhelming number of these entered on a legal visa and as the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection points out, “most UNCs [Unlawful Non-Citizens] only overstay their visa for a short period and then depart voluntarily.” As such the long term illegal alien population should be assumed to be a small fraction of the figures presented here.

Instead of attempting to enter unlawfully would-be migrants attempt to apply for asylum. Most of these asylum seekers use Indonesia as a launching pad and thereafter ride on rafts or small boats with the hope of reaching Australia’s jurisdiction in order to apply for asylum. Unfortunately some of these rafts are stopped by Australian naval forces, sink at sea due to unfavorable weather conditions, or otherwise never reach Australia. Looking at Australia’s humanitarian migration statistics gives us some idea of who these asylum seekers are. Unsurprisingly most are low skilled migrants fleeing war and poverty ridden countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.

One would hope that Australia would welcome asylees, but thus far its politicians have sought to increase the difficulty involved in applying for asylum. Throughout its history with asylum seekers the Australian government has sought to process them offshore in neighboring third countries like Nauru or Papua New Guinea. The logic for offshore processing is that it discourages asylum seekers from coming if they believe they will be stuck in a resettlement camp, away from any legal aid or reliable humanitarian aid, for an indefinite period while their applications are processed.

If offshore processing was not enough “Illegal Maritime Arrivals“, as the Australian Department of Immigration refers to asylum seekers, are no longer able to petition for visas for their family under the  humanitarian program. This both discourages asylum seekers and encourages those who do come to make the dangerous trans-oceanic trip with their family in order to avoid being split up. The immigration department has also made it clear that no permanent visa will be granted to illegal maritime arrivals.

In recent years Australia has attempted to push asylees towards resettling in Papua New Guinea. Australian officials assert that Papua New Guinea is a safe third country capable of assisting the asylees. Papua New Guinea’s political elites seem to support the ‘PNG solution’ in exchange for bribes in the form of international aid.

Australia is not the first country to move its asylee population to a third country. The United States and Canada are both parties to a Safe Third Country Agreement which allows them to move refugees between one another to best suit their national interests and the interests of the refugees. The difference here though is that both the United States and Canada are well developed countries with the resources necessary to provide humanitarian services. Papua New Guinea on the other hand is an undeveloped nation whose government is unable to provide adequate services for its current population let alone newcomers. For our US audience this would be comparable to the United States moving its illegal alien population to Haiti. Alternatively for our European audience this would be akin to rounding up irregular migrants from northern Africa and moving them into Syria.

Illegal immigrants in the United States have support among the larger migrant community, from sympathetic natives, the governments of their source countries, and in recent years have grown in sufficient affluence that they are capable of advocating on their own behalf. The support system for Australian asylees is not yet so developed.

Indonesia, which acts as the launching point for most of these asylees,  is attempting to persuade Australia to be more welcoming of asylees and has even appealed to the United Nations for help. Some even hope that the United States Secretary of State John Kerry might intervene, but it is doubtful that the secretary will do so. Australia may not be considered a world power, but it is easily the dominant Oceanic power in both economic and military terms. This means that no neighboring power can easily use diplomacy to convince Australian politicians to reform their asylee policies.

Table 7-2: Country of birth of Australia’s overseas born population, 1996 and 2011.

A little over a quarter of Australia’s population is foreign born and ordinarily this might encourage politicians to adopt more friendly policies towards asylees and migrants as a whole. Sadly most of the country’s migrants are from the United Kingdom or New Zealand who enjoy relaxed migration proceedings and therefore have little interest in campaigning on behalf of letting in low skilled asylees in.

As the above table from the Australian government’s latest migration trend paper shows, there is a growing number of Indians and Chinese migrants who might better sympathize with the plight of the asylees but even here it is unclear if this is enough to ferment the creation of an Australian open borders movement since these migrants tend to be high skilled and therefore enjoy a relatively warm welcome compared to low skilled migrants. It would be fruitful for future research on the situation in Australia to see what the attitudes of migrant Chinese and Indians are towards the prospect of relaxing migration rules for low skilled migrants.

None of this should be taken to mean that Australia’s higher skilled migrants do not seek any sort of immigration reform. Kiwis, those of New Zealand descent and Australia’s second largest migrant group, are starting to demand better treatment when migrating. However Kiwis are not fighting over the right to adobe in Australia, they enjoy that privilege thanks to the Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement. Kiwis are fighting to regain their preferred status in Australian immigration law and welfare benefits.

Previously Kiwis were effectively treated little different from native Australians when it came to welfare benefits but these benefits were removed in 2001 and Kiwis must now seek full citizenship if they wish to regain their access to Australia’s welfare programs. Kiwis also previously enjoyed a special pathway to Australian citizenship but due to the aforementioned 2001 agreement they must now apply for permanent residency and apply to citizenship like other migrants. Kiwi migrants and asylees may both want immigration reform in Australia but their goals are so different that it is unlikely that they will become political allies in the near future. If the Trans-Tasman Travel Agreement were ever in serious danger of being repealed then we might see a larger pro-migrant political alliance form.

In summary I have high hopes for Australia’s future but am less optimistic about the possibility of it adopting a viable entryway for low skilled asylees. I am a bit more optimistic that Kiwi demands will be met. Australia is by no means an anti-migrant country. It has a large foreign born population in both raw numbers and as a percentage of the total population. It also has one of the easiest methods to allow mid and high skilled migrants to enter for temporary work or to be become long term Australian citizens. The Australian people should be proud to have such policies and one could only hope the United States follows Australia’s example on those issues. Alas open borders aren’t truly open if we restrict entrance to those who most benefit from migration!

Michelangelo Landgrave is an economics graduate student at California State University, Long Beach.

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