The politics of asylum

Professor Jock Collins by Joanne Saad

Professor Jock Collins by Joanne Saad

In summary: 
  • UTS Professor of Social Economics Jock Collins breaks down our country’s lack of leadership and hysteria over asylum seekers
  • He believes today’s politicians are tapping into public sentiments rooted in racism and xenophobia, and says the ‘boat people’ will undoubtedly become a major issue at the next Australian election

The Labor Party’s inability to secure federal opposition support for its controversial ‘offshore processing’ policy has divided Australians on how best to receive those who seek asylum. With the Liberal Party claiming asylum seekers are linked to social unrest, UTS Professor of Social Economics Jock Collins examines how our country’s leaders are handling the hysteria.

The Gillard Government has been forced, against its will, to abandon the policy of offshore processing of asylum seekers who arrive on Australian shores by boat. This is not because the Australian Government has unearthed concealed humanitarian warmth to the plight of asylum seekers. Its policy of the mandatory detention of ‘boat people’, introduced by the Keating Labor Government, remains intact. Rather, Abbott’s political opportunism has prevented him supporting a policy that he actually believes in.

The ‘boat people’, as they’re being called, will undoubtedly become a major issue at the next Australian election. This reflects the lack of leadership that characterises contemporary Australian politics in the area of immigration policy.

Issues related to immigration are very controversial across the western world today. Media images involving immigrants from religious, linguistic or cultural minorities are generally situated in a negative news item involving some kind of conflict. This is particularly the case in Australia where immigration has been relatively larger, and more diverse, than most western nations. At the top of the immigration controversy: asylum seekers, undocumented arrivals, social unrest and crime.

One feature of globalisation has been the acceleration in the global movement of people. However, the demand for immigrants in western countries like Australia is outweighed to a massive degree by the number of people who want to become new immigrants. Since all western countries strictly control and limit their intakes, this imbalance between the supply of, and demand for, immigrants generates large flows of undocumented arrivals. 
It’s this component of the immigration intake that is most controversial. While the majority of undocumented immigrants arrive at Australia’s airports, it is the few thousand who arrive by boat on Australia’s north western shores that worry Australian politicians and the Australian public. The boat people may be small in numbers, yet they generate a disproportionate political and public response.

To put this into perspective, there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants arriving per year in Europe. While this controversial issue is central to the anti-immigration critique and to the rhetoric of the anti-immigration far right political parties in these countries, it doesn’t generate the hysteria it does in Australia.

There is an asymmetry here, partly explained by Australian political history. Our island nation enacted an explicitly racist ‘White Australia’ immigration policy as the cornerstone of the new Australian nation at Federation in 1901. This was not officially rescinded until the Whitlam Labor Government was elected in 1972. The xenophobia that produced widespread public and political support for White Australia was whipped up again by conservative Liberal governments over threat of the ‘invasion’ of Chinese communists in order to justify Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war.

The latest chapter in this hysterical response to the boat people issue – the recent claim by federal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that he was briefed by Immigration Department officials on evidence linking asylum seekers to social unrest in Australia.

It’s not surprising Abbott is interested in inflaming public concern about refugees. His previous political leader and mentor, John Howard, won the 2001 federal election by playing the Tampa saga  as a winning political card. Like Howard, Abbott is apparently unconcerned about tapping into core racism, prejudice and xenophobia to win political votes.

Unfortunately the Gillard Labor Government isn’t much better. It maintains mandatory detention for undocumented immigrants who arrive by sea, with Australia the only western nation to do so. The current government is so concerned with avoiding the wedge politics of the opposition that it put all its hopes in a policy solution of offshore processing. It was suggesting that a Malaysian or PNG solution has merit, whereas a Howard/Abbott Nauru solution does not.

The claim that asylum seekers cause social unrest and conflict in Australia has no supporting evidence. Research shows despite having proportionally more immigrants of greater religious, ethnic and linguistic diversity than nearly any other nation, social conflict involving immigrants is surprisingly rare in Australia.

One of the worst post-war incidents, the Sydney Cronulla beach riots of December 2005, bears no comparison to the riots of Paris in 2005 or in the United Kingdom in September 2011. Social cohesion is the norm, social conflict the aberration – as the four-year study of Social Cohesion in Australia, conducted by Professor Andrew Markus of Monash University and completed in September 2011, documents in great detail. The research tells us immigrant minorities and asylum seekers such as the Sudanese are much more likely to be the victims of crime and violence rather than the perpetrators. 

The first post-war asylum seekers to arrive by boat in Australia were the ‘displaced people’ from Poland and the Baltic states in the late 1940s.

They were met by widespread public opposition, but federal political leadership persisted against this. The second post-war wave of asylum seekers was the boat people fleeing from Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in 1975. Once again, public opposition was ignored by the conservative federal government led by Malcolm Fraser, who assisted Vietnamese boat people with settlement in Australia within the broader context of a new multiculturalism policy.

Similarly, the Hawke Labor government accepted large numbers of Chinese students and asylum seekers from Lebanon following the Tiananmen Square massacre and conflict in the Middle East. The government assisted their settlement into the Australian community (though they arrived by air, not boat) without bowing to public opinion.

Set against the strong resolution of past political leaders who have rejected the temptation to tap into public sentiments rooted in racism, the last decade of Australian politics can only be seen as a remarkable, and regrettable, about-face in political leadership and humanitarianism.