By Natalie Zirngast
Proposed changes to immigration policy on asylum seekers, currently being championed by federal Coalition immigration minister Philip Ruddock, hark back to the racism of the white Australia policy.
The white Australia policy officially governed Australian immigration from federation in 1901 until it was gradually dismantled between 1949 and 1973. Its general viewpoint was reflected by this comment from C.H. Pearson, a minister of education in Victoria late last century:
"The day may come ... when European observers will look around to see the globe girdled with a continuous zone of black and yellow races ... We know that coloured and white labour cannot exist side by side: we are well aware that China can swamp us with a year's surplus of population ... We are guarding the last part of the world in which the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher race."
Historically, the white Australia policy was supported by both the Coalition and the ALP, although in the last three decades, both have attempted to build themselves a new, non-racist image.
Philip Ruddock has stated that tough new laws on "people smuggling" and "boat people" have been announced in response to the increased numbers of unofficial asylum seekers coming to Australia by air or sea in the last year. The vast majority of these are from Third World countries, frequently those suffering internal strife or crippling economic sanctions: China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Turkey, Somalia.
On the ABC's 7.30 Report on November 5, Ruddock stated that large numbers of refugees from Iraq were preparing to come to Australia because of our "generous" benefits to refugees, and because they thought they would be accepted here, even if they had been rejected elsewhere. He asserted that some people were making misleading claims for refugee status which enabled them to take places from those who are really in need.
Changes to immigration legislation are to be discussed in parliament on November 22. These changes include prohibiting new "unauthorised" asylum seekers from applying for permanent residence and giving them access only to short-term safe haven or three-year temporary protection visas.
New regulations will also allow Australian patrols to board ships suspected of "people smuggling" in international waters, and will speed up deportation procedures.
Biometric tests such as DNA testing, fingerprinting, voice testing, face, palm and retinal recognition will be available to determine the identity of asylum seekers to make sure they are not eligible for asylum elsewhere and were not previously denied refugee status in another country.
Amnesty International's refugee coordinator, Graham Thom, points out that a temporary protection policy was proposed by One Nation in 1998 and was ridiculed by all major parties. Now that it is likely to become law, the move "signals the country's retreat from international law and fundamental human rights".
Ruddock asserts that Australia's refugee policies meet United Nations High Commission for Refugees recommendations and even go a little beyond them. However, a recent meeting in Queensland of several peak bodies that deal with asylum seekers and migrants determined that the new three-year visa is in contravention of Australia's obligations under the UN refugee convention.
According to Amnesty International, the proposed changes will also contravene several international human rights treaties that Australia has signed.
In a November 18 briefing paper, Amnesty opposed the new regulations because they will directly contravene obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention. They will target refugees rather than "people smugglers", cause further suffering for refugees, double the administrative cost for the government and fail to give due weight to the claims of asylum seekers who have suffered persecution.
The Australian Democrats have said they will reject the new legislation on temporary visas, and it is likely that the ALP will also, although Ruddock believes Labor has indicated its support.
The terminology being used by the government, and reinforced by the establishment media, is fuelling anti-refugee sentiment. People seeking asylum become "boat people", "illegal immigrants" and even just "illegals". Asylum seekers who enter "illegally" are being called "queue jumpers" and "forum shoppers".
Refugees are painted as consumers looking for the best "package", rather than people fleeing desperate circumstances.
There is also an artificial distinction made between "economic" and supposedly "genuine" refugees who fear racial, political or other persecution. Even Amnesty International mistakenly makes this distinction.
The rich, imperialist countries are generally responsible for the economic hardship being faced by those in the Third World — through their exploitation of labour and resources, and the strict conditions imposed by Western-dominated bodies, such as the World Bank, for loan repayments.
The US, with support from other governments such as Australia's, has also used its power to impose crippling economic sanctions on countries it takes exception to, creating appalling conditions in, for example, Iraq. These conditions are the direct cause of many Iraqi families seeking refuge elsewhere.
Western governments have often helped to create political refugees by supporting oppressive regimes — Australia's support for Indonesia's occupation of East Timor is an obvious example.
The global capitalist system reinforces the divide between rich and poor countries, and yet also seeks to stop its victims from moving to the wealthy countries in search of a better life. The increasing number of refugees is one proof of the growing pressure on poor countries. Yet immigration laws such as Ruddock's show that the First World is increasingly determined to protect its privileged position.
However, there is not consensus within the ruling class on the sort of immigration policies that Australia needs in order to maintain this position. The Coalition government wants to restrict the intake to more skilled migrants and has eased the rules for businesspeople to enter Australia while cracking down on unofficial immigrants.
In contrast, big business organisations have indicated support for increasing the intake of all types of migrants in order to boost the economy and provide adequate numbers of workers.
Journalist Geoffrey Barker commented in the Australian Financial Review on June 9: "As a wealthy nation supportive of free global capital flows and the spartan economic programs imposed on financially troubled developing countries by the World Bank and IMF, Australia might consider the moral tenability of its willingness to admit skilled immigrants but to eject the poor and unskilled. Can we support the mobility of capital while seeking to restrict mobility of labour? ... We have, happily, eliminated the old racial discrimination from Australian immigration policy. Whether we are replacing it with a new economic discrimination is an issue that arises at least implicitly every time we round up and deport another boatload of desperate illegal arrivals."
Some sections of business do support the movement of cheap labour, which they hope to exploit at least until it becomes unionised and accustomed to local wage standards. Non-English-speaking migrants have also been successfully concentrated in the lowest paid, least skilled jobs, a policy which anti-immigrant racism has justified.
Immigration policy may not be explicitly decided on the grounds of race any more, but the new legislation will clearly have a greater impact on groups from poor, non-Western, Asian and Middle Eastern countries. The new legislation and a compliant media's beat-up of the "boat people's invasion" amount to a reintroduction of the white Australia policy by stealth.
We need to reject the racist legislation proposed by Ruddock, and support the rights of both unofficial and official migrants to remain in Australia and to have access to the same welfare and other services as everybody else.