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Why the Tampa policy is the fairest way

The Age 5/11/01

Howard has the right, and the public, on his side in insisting on an orderly refugee intake.

The Federal Government’s rather ad hoc actions to stop illegal boat migrants from reaching the mainland are overwhelmingly supported and some suggest the opposition’s initial hesitancy in backing the policy has marred its election chances. The support for the Coalition has probably been enhanced by John Howard’s affirmation at the Liberal Party’s policy launch that Australia alone will determine who is allowed as an immigrant and in what circumstances.

But the minority against this bipartisan policy has mostly reacted with anger, a few saying it makes them ashamed to be Australians. Some sections of the media have also assertively claimed the moral high ground by portraying the attempted migrants as obviously desperate and, being few in number, as constituting no real threat to Australia. So, why not be compassionate and let the migrants come to Australia in leaky boats to be processed?

One can understand the naturally sympathetic feeling for people trying to escape from repressive regimes. And, although few moralists have suggested a specific figure, they would presumably support increasing the refugee immigration component from the existing 12,000 to, say, 25,000. But these preachers are either failing to properly assess the situation or promoting other agendas.

Realistically, Australia can make only a small contribution to any resettlement of refugees, who although reduced by 5 million from their peak currently number a massive 22 million. And, as one of only nine countries to have a pro-active resettlement policy and a high intake per capita, we can already legitimately claim some moral high ground.

Would we suddenly become moral if the existing refugee component was increased to 25,000 while leaving behind, as it were, the other 21 million-plus? Should the boaters, who include some with independent resources and some non-genuine refugees, be given priority?

Importantly, only those with a well-founded fear of being persecuted are genuine refugees under the relevant UN convention and those needing sanctuary are a minute minority. The majority are either refugees who already have asylum and thus are in no danger of persecution, or illegal migrants who frequently try to pass themselves off as refugees. The Tampa group, for example, was not in need of sanctuary but comprised illegal migrants who effectively hijacked the ship and forced the captain to re-route it.

The key issue is this: should Australia give illegal boat people greater opportunity to migrate here than those having to use the established refugee processes overseas? There can be no lack of compassion in requiring that all potential refugees complete such processes, particularly given our Federal Court’s shocking performance in handling domestic appeals.

Refugees already apply to migrate to Australia in large numbers (there are 60,000 current applications) and, notwithstanding some outrageous claims to the contrary, are going through set procedures that would be made meaningless if boaters bypassed them. The cost of a higher refugee component (about $30 million per 1,000) also needs weighing against much cheaper methods of providing humanitarian assistance.

As the pro-boaters position is so obviously inequitable, one cannot help thinking it must largely reflect views of groups supporting a much larger program to make Australia even more multicultural. Most Australians, however, want a total program around the present size and past surveys have revealed first choice in sourcing migrants goes to those from countries outside Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Reports that young Muslims in the UK are being openly recruited to fight for Osama bin Laden are likely to reinforce that choice.

This predominant support for immigrants from cultural backgrounds with most respect for freedom and tolerance is undoubtedly a factor behind the backing of the current boat policy. Its basic underpinning is not racist but a rational fear that a much larger mixed immigration program would weaken our culture and risk creating the social and political divisiveness seen in many other countries.

Of course, the boat policy can only act as a deterrent and will not stop illegal immigration attempts. Equally, there are obvious limits to the capacity of Pacific Islands to absorb boaters. Firm deterrence must thus be the priority.

No weight should be given to the possibility that an agreement with Indonesia, even if it were able to be reached, would prevent the flow. President Sukarnoputri’s acknowledgement last week of her central government’s limited authority over its citizens exposed openly the well-known extensive corruption within the armed and police forces - and the shallowness of the agreement proposal by Kim Beazley.

Some pro-boaters have narrow political or personal objectives and attempt to exploit the moral card. But, morally and otherwise, the Federal Government has the right, indeed the duty, to determine the size and composition of Australia’s immigration program.

Des Moore, a former deputy secretary of the federal Treasury, is director of the Institute for Private Enterprise and a board member of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The views expressed here are his.

(Note: The Editor omitted the text shown above in italics and added the heading and the introductory sentence).