Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 03:18 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 03:18 | SYDNEY

A European spectre haunts Australian immigration

12 September 2011 10:21

Dr Khalid Koser is Head of the New Issues in Security Program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.

While it appears that Andrew Metcalfe, the Secretary of the Department of Immigration, has been widely misquoted after his press briefing last Wednesday, he does appear to be concerned that unless the Gillard Government can get a handle on unauthorised boat arrivals soon, Australia may face some of the consequences that Europe has suffered from losing control of immigration over the last few decades.

As a Europe-based commentator on asylum and migration, I'd say Mr Metcalfe and his colleagues are probably underestimating the mess Europe is in, and overestimating Australia's problems.

First, asylum in Australia is under control. Whether ranked according to total asylum applications or the number of asylum seekers per 1000 inhabitants, or with respect to national GDP, Australia ranks behind most European countries.

Second, despite the massive attention paid to unauthorised boat arrivals, Australia's irregular migration challenge is tiny compared to that in Europe, where there are almost certainly millions of irregular migrants living and working, and hundreds of thousands of irregular migrants entering each year. Australia is also far more effective than most European countries in identifying and expelling irregular migrants and rejected asylum seekers.

Third, Australia is unlikely ever to face the social consequences of mass migration that Europe has, ranging from widespread disenfranchisement and exclusion, through racism and xenophobia, to urban unrest and terrorism. As Mr Metcalfe apparently said at the briefing, multiculturalism still works in Australia.

All of this is to the credit of Mr Metcalfe and his predecessors, who have constructed a managed migration system that is the envy of almost every country in the world – although geographical, historical, and political factors certainly also help explain the gulf between Europe's failure and Australia's success.

But in Europe we've got used to large numbers, and ineffective controls, and social problems. Our real problem is that we can no longer have a rational debate about immigration. And it's in this respect that Mr Metcalfe would be right to raise the European spectre in Australia.

The Australian Government has somehow contrived to lose public confidence by allowing a good news story to turn into a bad news story: Australia has an excellent managed migration system currently blemished by an increasing but still small number of boat arrivals. But the public thinks the asylum system is out of control and doesn't trust the Government on migration. Its cack-handedness over the Malaysia deal has strained tensions between the administration and the judiciary, and poisoned relations with civil society. And by insisting on defending the now indefensible Malaysia deal, the Government has kept asylum right at the top of the political agenda, and provided an open goal for the Opposition.

The Australian Government is in danger of backing itself into a corner, from which it makes its asylum and immigration policy in response to press headlines, opinion polls, and Opposition posturing. That's what European governments have done for the last decade, and look where it got us.

Photo by Flickr user Giorgio.