Red Harmisson writes from Sydney: The Australian government has admitted that it has a major problem with South East Asian boat people, otherwise known as illegal immigrants. And the government in Canberra knows that it’s not alone in the increasingly destabilising phenomenon of mass migration.
Here in Australia, a record number – more than 15,500 – have arrived in so far this year and the government doesn’t know what to do with them. Worse than that, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen says his people are having to get rid of some of the influx to places like Manus Island in Papua New Guinea.
Given that mass migration is a feature and in many cases a major headache for immigration departments throughout the world, Australia’s boat people should not be such a special case. But they are because Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s left of centre government is losing control of the incomers and placing them in conditions that are so verging on the inhumane that some of the refugees have, reportedly, tried suicide rather than live as they’re forced to.
The old phosphate island of Nauru in the Pacific near the equator has been turned into a refugee camp. Reports here in Sydney say that people are living 14 to a tent in some of the most sweltering temperatures in the Pacific and at present predictions are likely to be kept there for anything up to five years.
Transfers from mainland infiltrators to PNG include families with children from Sri Lanka and Iran. The determination to get them out of mainland Australia has forced Prime Minister Julia Gillard to revive the once discredited island human dumping policy ominously called the Pacific Solution created by the administration of former Prime Minister John Howard in 2001. It was so internationally unacceptable that it was scrapped by Labour five years ago.
But Ms Gillard has agreed to open the procedure in desperation to cope with the boat people, which is how 400 boat people are now forcibly marooned by Australian immigration officers on Nauru.
Nauru was never the best place to be – even in the lucrative phosphate winning days. As Amnesty’s Australian refugee co-ordinator Graham Thom apparently views it: ‘Conditions on Nauru are grim. In the front of their minds is the fact that they’re not being processed, and the uncertainty that’s facing them is clearly having an impact on their mental health.’
Ms Gillard’s officials say that island dumping and harsher immigration clearance policies are designed to deter refugees from Asia and the Middle East risking their lives and those of their families. But that is clearly not working.
Already there are mostly unbelievable horror stories about the island pens, including tales that refugees have been known to throw children overboard to force immigration off-shore craft to rescue the whole family from their sieve-like vessels. The Australian MP for Manus Island, Ronnie Knight, warns about imprisoned boat people going ‘stir crazy’ with all that this might mean.
The primary difficulty is that the re-vamped Pacific Solution is not working. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has had to admit that this week and now says that the thousands of boat people arriving every month make it impossible to island-dump until the numbers are thinned out. It’s a job that will take years. ‘So some people… will be processed in Australia and processed in the community, but will remain on bridging visas, even after they are regarded, through the process, as refugees,’ he reckons.
And not everyone who makes it to the beach is allowed to stay – even in the processing cage. The conundrum is to differentiate between asylum seekers and those just wanting a new economic life in Australia. Consequently, people are being packed up and sent back to their original countries, for example, Sri Lanka.
‘Our humanitarian programme is for people who are at risk of persecution, not for people seeking to undertake economic migration,’ Bowen said.
The importance of the monitoring by Amnesty and Australia’s Immigration Commission is that this is not just an Australian problem that probably cannot be fixed.
Europe is also going through immigration scares. The UK sees it as partly a hangover from colonial days from which many surprisingly still have an historical claim on settlement in the UK. Membership of the EU with cross-border transfer adds to the British dilemma.
Elsewhere in the EU, the Irish government of Enda Kenny skirts the problem but secretly worries about the social unrest immigration is causing. Dublin, for example, has more and more non-white faces, Roma beggars at every other ATM and streets full of people without a word of English and certainly not Erse.
In Italy, boats arrive every day from Saharan Africa at about the same rate as Australia is getting them from Asia. The French government is reviewing its intelligence and security programmes as African Islamic groups promise to export their revolution into Europe starting with France.
There is no policy that makes a European or an Australian version of the Pacific Solution work. What the Australians don’t yet admit, but European governments are having to take on board, is that illegal immigrants and the mass movement of displaced peoples is more than a social invasion. It is yet another very real destabilising factor in a world barely coping with shifting economies and fiscal failures. Like the boat people, the problem is not going away.