Tom Switzer is a presenter on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National.
In recent years, Australia has been condemned for deterring boat people. Brutal, callous, inhumane, racist, xenophobic — all these barbs have been hurled at Canberra for its treatment of refugees. The tough border-protection policies have included turning back boats, mandatory detention and refugee camps in neighboring islands of Nauru and, up until last week, Manus in Papua New Guinea. The measures are indeed severe and allegations of human rights abuse persist.
At first glance, this criticism is not surprising: That Australia, a nation of 23 million built by immigrants, is acting heartlessly toward those who want a better life would seem like the height of hypocrisy. It is true that boat people are confined to unnecessarily difficult conditions, and we need more transparency on their treatment. All that said, the hard truth is this: Deterrence against people-smuggling requires firmness — and even harshness. You don’t deter traffickers by being gentle and compassionate.
It is precisely because Australia is an immigrant nation that we understand the necessity of tough border protection: It serves to discourage people from making the dangerous journey on unseaworthy vessels. It also, crucially, boosts public confidence in a large-scale, nondiscriminatory migration program, which includes an orderly, humanitarian refugee intake. The tough border policies command broad bipartisan and public support.
At the heart of the matter is a firm but fair post-World War II policy that mass migration is conditional on government control over “who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” as then-prime minister John Howard put it in 2001. Since 1945, Australia’s population has more than tripled, largely because of influxes from Asia in recent decades. And we moved successfully from a White Australia immigration policy to a multicultural one. Today, one in every four Australian residents is foreign born.
As unfashionable as it is to say so, tough border protection acts as a declaration that the nation state is in charge of its destiny. If the compact with the Australian people is undermined, public support for high levels of immigration will collapse. If entry to Australia were perceived to be easy, unlawful and unsafe arrivals could skyrocket, a fact that refugee activists seem to not consider.
The record tells the story: Unauthorized boat arrivals to Australia slowed dramatically after former prime minister John Howard’s government introduced offshore detention in 2001. From that point on, the rate of legal, nondiscriminatory immigration doubled during the rest of his tenure until 2007. This flowed directly from a sense that the Australian people, through their elected representatives, were deciding who is allowed to come to our shores. According to Katharine Betts, a sociologist specializing in population studies at Swinburne University of Technology, a strong emphasis on border protection helped increase public confidence in legal immigration.
However, when Howard’s successor Kevin Rudd broke an election pledge and ended the so-called Pacific Solution of refugee detention as well as Australia’s system of temporary protection visas in 2008, the disincentives were removed and the people-smugglers were back in business. For the next five years, more than 50,000 people arrived in unauthorized boats, and about 1,200 souls died at sea. Not surprisingly, public faith in the government’s handling of the issue collapsed dramatically.
The situation became so grave that the Labor foreign minister in 2012-2013, Bob Carr, later wrote in his diaries that the surge in asylum seekers was a “catastrophe” and represented the “biggest threat to Australian territorial integrity since World War II.” That all changed in 2013 when the center-right Liberal-National Coalition was returned to power and reintroduced many of the Howard-era policies, including the deployment of the Australian navy and customs officials to turn back boats. The result: For the past three years, the boats have stopped coming. Lives have been saved. Thousands have been released from detention and smugglers have had to look elsewhere for their wicked trade.
The success of tough border restrictions means that public confidence in our immigration program has been restored. There is no public backlash against politicians for losing control of national borders. Unlike Europe, Australia has not witnessed the rise of nativist and extreme-right-wing senior political figures. Anti-immigrant political parties are marginalized here. In fact, most Australians had no qualms about the government’s pledge to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees last September. When it comes refugee resettlement, Australia is one of the most generous nations in the world on a per capita basis.
The lesson is that a firm and controlled process of entry selection benefits immigrants and asylum seekers who go to a nation fairly and legally. Strict controls also help dampen down anti-immigrant prejudice. Bear all this in mind the next time you hear that Australia’s refugee policy is inhumane and xenophobic.