17 August 2011

There is a simple solution

19 years have passed since Australia "led" the world with mandatory detention of asylum seekers. There are now people on the electoral roll who have known no other way of dealing with the issue.

Some indication of the massive cost of this policy can be gleaned from the evidence given to the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Immigration Detention Network, reported on the front page of today's Sydney Morning Herald. Details of the Committee can be found on the Australian Parliament House website and the DIAC website.

The cost of the policy is measured in human lives and suffering, hundreds of millions of dollars, and irreparable damage to our country's reputation. And in return for this cost, the policy has been a total failure.

Secretary of the Department of Immigration Andrew Metcalfe stated in his address to the Committee yesterday that "these issues often defy simple solutions". Mr Metcalfe is wrong. One factual observation proves this: more asylum seekers arrive in Australia every year by plane than arrive by boat. They are allowed to live and work in the community while their applications are processed through the system. Statistically they are far less likely to be found to be genuine refugees than the boat arrivals, but nobody pays any attention to them. To get the facts, read this Briefing Paper from the Parliamentary Library.

In the type of free society which we Australians, for the most part rightly, believe we live in, people are only locked up if they are bad or dangerous. For 19 years governments from both sides have put out the message that asylum seekers arriving by boat are bad and dangerous, while those who come by plane are not.

The simple solution, Mr Metcalfe, is to recognise that the policy of mandatory detention is a failure, a costly, inhumane and miserable failure. Put an end to it now, treat all asylum seekers equally, and try to recover some national dignity.

09 August 2011

When is a queue not a queue? Englishmen, asylum seekers and students

A Frenchman once told me that when an Englishman is waiting alone at a bus stop he forms an orderly queue of one. In Australia, we probably line up less neatly than the English, but we have our own obsessions about queues and queueing.

Scarcely a day goes by without asylum seekers and refugees being on the front page, so it was interesting to hear someone talking on the ABC this morning about that other putative queue, the one that is populated by thousands of former overseas students in Australia waiting for the permanent visas that they have already qualified for. Peter Mares is one of the few Australian journalists who knows, or cares, about these people. He reminded us about them on Fran Kelly's breakfast program this morning.

In the opening scenes of the movie Casablanca the narrator tells us of the refugees from the Second World War who wait... and wait... and wait. Besides the students Peter Mares tells us of, there are of course the refugees from today's wars and injustices who are waiting all over the world. The government's plan is to send the latest arrivals to Malaysia so they can wait there, indefinitely it seems, and take in some others who have been waiting in that country, again for unknown periods of time. While waiting to be put on a plane from Christmas Island, the potential removees (is that a word?) have had their wait here extended, for which they are no doubt grateful, by their lawyers who have questioned yet another of the byzantine intricacies of our immigration laws in the High Court.

This particular intricacy is found in s 198A of the Migration Act, which was brought in by the Howard government to allow asylum seekers to be hauled off by the navy to Nauru, that obliging little deposit of bird dung in the Pacific that got its independence from Australia in 1968 and has probably regretted it ever since. In order to justify shrugging off our international obligations under the Refugees Convention, the Act allows the Minister to "declare" a place outside Australia to be an OK place to send asylum seekers to. Under the Malaysian deal, Minister Bowen has used the same section to declare Malaysia to be such a place. The argument before the Court is whether the Minister has to take into account any actual facts about the country in question before making that declaration and (here's the byzantine part), whether those facts are "jurisdictional", ie whether the Court can have a second look at them.

An injunction has been granted until 22 August when the Court will decide whether it can or not.

Oh yes, and then there is the question of the unaccompanied minors in the group. Another piece of legislation makes the Minister for Immigration their "guardian". The Court is being asked whether the Minister is being a good parent by sending them off to Malaysia on their own (presumably their real parents are either back home in Afghanistan/Iraq/Iran or in Indonesia).

All we can do now is wait...

03 August 2011

Two recent publications on immigration and population issues

In the past month I have come across two well-researched publications on immigration and population issues, each approaching the issues in very different ways. These are in addition to the report on illegal employment mentioned in an earlier post.

The first is a report from the Centre for Population and Urban Research at Monash University, entitled Immigration and the Resources Boom Mark II. The main author being Dr Bob Birrell, anyone familiar with this area will not be surprised that the report favours a reduction in immigration intake overall. While critical of the government's policy assumptions, it contains a few of its own that in my view predetermine some of its conclusions. One in particular that I disagree with is the assumption that the need to build and renew infrastructure to cope with population growth is bad or undesirable. I also think that the alleged preoccupation of Australian city dwellers with congestion and overcrowding is more of a political beat up than a reality.

The second is a report from the Productivity Commission entitled A 'Sustainable' Population? - Key Policy Issues. It contains the proceedings of a roundtable discussion on this subject held in Canberra in March 2011. As such it reflects a variety of different views on the issues. I'm glad to see the word "sustainable" put in quotes, since I think it is a largely meaningless tag that gets stuck onto just about any argument these days. I haven't yet had the time to get very far into the different papers and views collected in this volume, but I hope to have a few more observations over the next few weeks. Any comments from anyone who has read all or part of it are very welcome.

01 August 2011

Employer sanctions for employing illegal workers -- good idea, bad implementation

The following figures come from the recently published Report of the 2010 Review of the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Act 2007:
  • as many as 100,000 people working illegally in Australia;
  • 100 instances of possible breach by employers of the laws relating to employing illegal workers;
  • at least 10 matters thoroughly investigated, involving "the deliberate and systematic use of these workers in significant numbers at identified workplaces", some involved in what appeared to be "serious organised rackets" and revealing "apparent abuse of the workers including sexual exploitation, unsafe work practices, underpayment, taxation and welfare fraud, and associated crime";
  • only one matter that "could properly be the subject of a prosecution taking into account the evidential requirements of sections 245AA to AK of the Migration Act 1958 and the Prosecution Policy of the Commonwealth";
  • no actual prosecutions so far, except for one person who pleaded guilty.
Governments of all stripes have been telling us for years that they would "crack down" on the employment of illegal workers. Exploitation, undercutting of wages and conditions, dangerous work practices, sexual abuse, all excellent justifications. While we lock away tens of thousands for the crime of getting on a leaky boat, and point the finger of blame at young foreign students whose only offence was to believe what the government told them, we still can only manage to convict one boss who was dumb enough to plead guilty.

The report concludes:

"The principal reason for the failure of the Employer Sanctions Act provisions is that the ‘best evidence’ of breach would almost always come from the workers themselves but their evidence is affected by their complicity or independent culpability under section 235 of the Migration Act 1958. They would normally be removed from Australia ‘as soon as reasonably practicable’ as required by section 198 of the Migration Act 1958. The cost and the administrative inconvenience of detaining them pending a trial would be prohibitive.

The provisions of the Migration Amendment (Employer Sanctions) Act 2007 are wholly ineffective as a deterrent against the small number of employers and labour suppliers who engage or refer non-citizens who do not have lawful permission to work or who work in breach of their visa conditions. The Employer Sanctions provisions are also ineffective as an educational tool for recalcitrant employers and labour suppliers. "

The report's recommendations include allocation of more resources to Immigration to deal with the problem. Maybe they could take them away from punishing asylum seekers and students and put them into what seems like a much more useful endeavour.