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Australia’s geographic isolation has meant that it has rarely had large numbers of asylum seekers crossing its borders without legal authorisation. The majority of those seeking asylum have always been individuals who have entered Australia legally on short term entry visas. While waiting to have their claims for refugee status processed these people can live in the community but are only allowed to work in special circumstances. As a consequence, they are dependent on a range of NGOs and community groups for their daily needs. One of the largest groups were Chinese who came to Australia on student visas before and after the June 1989 Tiananmen events in which many protestors were killed. Initially allowed to remain in Australia on temporary visas they were eventually granted permanent residence in July 1994.
Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011–12 Migration Program Report Program year to 30 June 2012 p. Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2012 Population Flows:
Immigration Aspects 2010-2011 Edition ch. In contrast to those who arrive under the Humanitarian Program or who seek refugee status after legally entering Australia, the handling of those who arrive without authorisation by boat (Irregular Maritime Arrivals or IMAs) has been different and contentious. In the mid 1970s Australia declared an amnesty for individuals who had overstayed their entry permits or who had entered illegally by jumping ship but this initiative has not been repeated. Shortly after, fighting in Indochina led to many people leaving the region on small boats to seek refuge in nearby countries. The first of these boats arrived in the Australian port of Darwin in April 1976 creating a major furore before they were allowed to settle in Australia.
Over the next five years some 2000 other Indochinese arrived as ‘boat people’ but the vast majority now settled in Australia arrived under the regular Humanitarian program. The successful implementation of the international Comprehensive Plan of Action for Indochinese refugees led to a lull in the arrival of ‘boat people’. But small numbers of arrivals began again in 1989. In an effort to address the renewed flows of boat people from Vietnam, Cambodia and China, in 1992 the Labor government under Prime Minister Keating introduced legislation authorising the mandatory detention of those arriving in Australia without prior authorisation.
Nevertheless, in 1999 there was a sudden increase in the number of boat arrivals from 200 people in 1998 to 4,175 in 1999-2000 and 4,137 in 2000-2001.
Concerns about this increase in numbers by the Coalition Liberal National Party Government under Prime Minister John Howard underlay the Government’s refusal to allow the MV Tampa to unload the survivors on Australia’s Christmas Island, as provided for by international law. Subsequently, after a military intervention, the passengers were transferred to an Australian naval vessel and transported to Nauru from whose government the Australian government had gained agreement to establish a detention centre for off-shore processing of refugee claims. The use of off-shore detention centres in Nauru and then Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, became known as the ‘Pacific Solution’ whereby the Australian government persuaded major recipients of its overseas aid budget to provide detention facilities for the boat people. These arrangements were complemented by legislation which excised Australian off-shore islands such as Christmas Island from Australia’s ‘migration zone’ thereby denying arrivals on them the right to claim asylum status in Australia. Whether the policy was actually effective in discouraging people traffickers, or whether there was a decline in potential asylum seekers the numbers of arrivals did decline substantially to less than 100 persons annually between 2003 and 2008.
After over a decade in power the Coalition Government was being subjected to a sustained criticism for many of its policies in addition to its handling of the asylum seekers. At the election at the end of 2007 John Howard and his Government were swept from power in a landslide victory for the Labor Party under the leadership of Kevin Rudd. With an ambitious reform agenda the new Government nevertheless found time to formally abandon the Pacific solution with the closure of the final active detention centre in Nauru. In 2008 it also provided permanent residence to successful asylum seekers by replacing the temporary protection visas previously issued to them. These changes allowed them to apply to bring their families to join them in Australia.
Despite the strong support which brought the Labor Government to office in 2007 it soon became the target for extensive criticisms on a wide range of policy fronts including its handling of the global financial crisis, climate change and a mining tax. In a sudden and unexpected internal Labor Party coup Kevin Rudd was replaced by his deputy Julia Gillard in June 2010. The Opposition parties actively questioned her legitimacy as Prime Minister. In the subsequent Federal elections the Labor party lost much of its electoral support and Gillard returned to office in September 2010 as the leader of a minority Government dependent on the support of a number of Independent members and the Green Party.
Among the issues which the Opposition used against the Gillard Government in the election campaign was its handling of the increase in boat arrivals from 686 in 2008-9 to 4,597 in 2009-10, the latter figure being nearly half of the total number of on-shore applications of 10,575. The Opposition even started unilateral negotiations with the government of Nauru to re-open that country’s detention center. One of the key features of the election campaign was that the Labor Party adopted a defensive, re-active approach to the Coalition’s policy proposals on a range of areas. Although Gillard refused to reconsider the Nauru solution, she spoke about setting up a regional processing centre to be located in East Timor. In yet another attempt to resolve the situation the Gillard Government entered into an agreement with the Malaysian Government to take 4000 recognised refugees living in Malaysia in exchange for Malaysia accepting 800 boat people as soon as they arrived on Australian territory.
Seen as effectively a return to the ‘Pacific Solution, within a month of the agreement being signed 335 people had already arrived. However, an appeal to the High Court of Australia dealt the death blow to the Malaysian ‘Solution’ when it resolved at the end of August 2011 that it was illegal for the government to send asylum seekers to countries (such as Malaysia, Papua New Guinea or Nauru) which had not signed the UN Convention on Refugees or were not in a position to render asylum seekers suitable protection. Many of the arrivals in this period were also unaccompanied minors whom the judgement declared could not be sent off-shore.
The effect of this judgement was to call into question both the Government and Opposition’s proposals. After over a year of political stalemate the Government accepted all the recommendations of the Houston Committee which was set up to advise on policy options and passed the necessary enabling legislation with the support of the Opposition parties. Key recommendations included increasing the numbers admitted under the existing refugee program, re-opening the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres and requiring those admitted as refugees to bring in family members under the Family Migration Program. By September 2012 the first boat arrivals were transferred to Nauru.
The Changing Role of Economic Criteria Permanent Migration.
The extreme politicization of the debates surrounding the handling of the boat people is at variance with the lack of public response to the major departures from Australia’s long-established commitment to attracting permanent migrants, especially those with family already living in Australia. The adoption of a non-discriminatory migrant selection policy involves selecting permanent settlers on the basis of one of three main rationales: family reunion, economic benefit or humanitarian need. The numbers of entrants in each of these streams is based on an annual quota determined after consultations with the individual states, community groups and economic stakeholders. Australia follows the Canadian practice of using a points system to assist in selecting groups of economic stream migrants. The points weighting given to selection criteria have changed over time reflecting changing emphases on age, existing family ties, language, education, work experience and specific occupations. The general trend has been towards favouring younger more skilled migrants with a knowledge of English. Particularly in the case of the economic stream the quota is regularly adjusted to reflect the local economic environment and labour market needs in times of unemployment or labour shortages.
Over the last decade the largest number of settler arrivals was planned for 2008-9 with a total of 171,800 places. In 2009-10 and 2010-11 the numbers were reduced by 1.9% in response to the impact of the global financial crisis. But they were increased to 185,000 places in 2011-12 in response to labour market shortages.
These numbers are more than double those of a decade earlier in 1999-2000.In 2011-12 68% of the settler arrivals (including their dependent spouses and children) had been selected under the economically focussed ‘Skills’ program11. This figure reflects the long term trend to give priority to economic over family criteria in selection. At the same time there has also been, within the Skills program an increasing focus on the Employer Sponsored component of the Skills program at the expense of the General Skilled Migration component;
a response to the needs of employers and regions experiencing particular skills shortages. This decade long growth in the migration program and the prominence of economic arrivals reflects the robustness of the Australian economy and, in particular, the labour needs of the booming resource sector at a time when unemployment declined to 5.3% in August 2011.
The only country whose citizens do not need visas to enter Australia is New Zealand with which Australia has a common labour market. In 2009-10 New Zealanders accounted for 2, 712 (1.5%) of the permanent arrivals of 185,102 people with the remaining 13,770 (7.4%) (after accounting for the family and skills migration programs) being individuals arriving under the separate Humanitarian program. Many other New Zealanders come to Australia to work and live on a temporary basis. These flows reflect New Zealand’s involvement in the initial discussions which led to the 1901 Federation of the six Australian states into Australia in 1901. Even today the option for New Zealand to join the federation still exists in the Australian constitution.
Despite its enormous landmass, since the 19th century Australians have concentrated around the coast line especially in the six state capital cities. The two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are home to over one third of the country’s population estimated in October 2011 to be over 22,700,000 persons. Not surprisingly, such cities with their employment opportunities and socio-cultural resources Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011–12 Migration Program Report Program year to 30 June 2012, p. are particularly attractive to migrants. The general population trend away from inland rural areas continues despite policy efforts to encourage more dispersed settlement.
Immigration policy has been one means used to reverse this move through measures developed in conjunction with local government authorities and employers. These include awarding extra points to those applicants willing to move to rural areas and better opportunities for gaining recognition of professional qualifications. The presence of large numbers of foreign born and trained medical practitioners in rural Australia is one outcome of such policies. In the face of continuing calls for more residents and workers, Australia in February 2010 announced the establishment of State Migration Plans which give states and territories more flexibility than under existing arrangements to nominate migrants to meet specific labour and regional needs. By 2011-12, 38% of all places allocated under the Skills program went to individuals entering under the various regionally focussed programs. The Expansion of Temporary Migration.
Even while Australia has placed greater emphasis on economic criteria in selecting permanent immigrants it has also expanded opportunities for temporary migration despite long-held concerns about the potential negative effects of this on labour market conditions. This change reflects the importance of the economic considerations influencing Australia’s migration policies. Tourism has played an increasingly important part in Australia’s foreign exchange earnings since the 1980s. By 2010-11, tourists accounted for 86% of the 4.1 million temporary arrivals 13. Reflecting the increasing importance of Australia’s international trading relationships short term business travellers constituted 13.2% of these tourists or 11.3% of all temporary arrivals14. Complementing these short term visitors were other temporary arrivals whose entry reflected the importance they were seen as having for the Australian economy. During the 1990s, calls by employers for greater flexibility in meeting their skilled labour market needs led to the adoption of policies which provided for the entry of temporary skilled workers on visas which could be extended for up to four years. In 2010-11 the 90,120 entrants under this program were 2.2% of all temporary entrants15. At the same time, the government’s support for encouraging the selling of educational courses to overseas students as an international trade initiative led to a major expansion in the numbers of international students entering Australia to study (6.1% of all temporary arrivals by 2010-11)16.
While short English language courses were popular, large numbers of students also Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship, 2011–12 Migration Program Report Program year to 30 June 2012, p. Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2012 Population Flows:
Immigration Aspects 2010-2011 Edition p. Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship Visitor Visa Program Report 30 June 2012 p. 9.
Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2012 Population Flows:
Immigration Aspects 2010-2011 Edition p. Australian Government, Department of Immigration and Citizenship 2012 Population Flows:
Immigration Aspects 2010-2011 Edition p. enrolled in tertiary education courses extending for more than a year. One effect of these new opportunities for long-term temporary education and business migration where numbers were not restricted by the application of quotas was that since 1999-2000 these long term temporary arrivals regularly exceed the annual numbers of permanent settler arrivals.