SYDNEY — THE United Nations says there are 18 million refugees looking for homes around the world, and that makes Australia a little nervous. The government has begun enacting tough policies to deal with an immigration problem that critics say does not really exist.
With a federal election just around the corner and 1 million people out of work, both parties are making political capital with strong stands on border control. The Labor government cut the migration slots this year from 111,000 to 80,000. The opposition Liberal-National Party has said it would accept far fewer immigrants during the recession.
Early this month, 113 Chinese boat people were sent back after only nine days. Immigration Minister Gerry Hand's quick deportation move was criticized by ethnic and welfare groups; the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees expressed concern. An immigration official says the boat people said they were migrating; they were not refugees.
Australia has also been criticized for its policy of detaining immigrants while their cases are being decided. Federal court Justice Marcus Einfeld says the government's treatment of Cambodian refugees is a "national disgrace." More than 200 people have been kept at a remote detention center for 2 1/2 years while their status is being resolved.
And under recently passed legislation, claimants cannot apply to the courts for release from detention while their claims are being determined.
"People are cut off from any human support services," says Justice Einfeld. "Children have been kept behind barbed wire and high fences for the whole or the majority of their lives. It is simply a lack of humanity."
Minister Hand and senior immigration officials were unavailable for comment.
Refugees are getting desperate. Three Cambodian women are in their third week of a hunger strike to protest being refused refugee status.
"We [Australians] definitely have an abiding anxiety about immigration," one legal commentator says. "For some reason we feel vulnerable to uncontrolled immigration. Australian history is replete with instances where we passed legislation for dealing with what are perceived as immigration-control problems."
Critics say Australia's concern is unwarranted. The caseload of 23,000 is small compared with Germany's 500,000. Distance and logistical problems prevent large numbers from landing on Australia's shores. This year, six boats have landed with refugees.
The country had what was commonly called a "White Australia" immigration policy until the mid-1970s when Australians took part in international efforts to resettle Indochinese. Until recently, Australia resettled more refugees per capita than any other resettlement nation, and its intake of Indochinese was higher than that of Canada or the US.
The backlog stems from two events in 1989. After the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the government gave asylum to thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia. Six months later, changes in the Migration Act that limited immigration options prompted a flood of applications through the remaining avenue of humanitarian status.
The applications for asylum swelled from 500 a year to 1,000 a month. The Immigration Department had to apply for more funding and hire and train more workers, one official says, and case-processing slowed substantially. Critics of the immigration policy are heartened by the new independent review mechanism the Immigration Ministry recently created for assessing cases.
Australia is coping with both a major recession and a restructuring of industry that has resulted in job closures.
"As usually happens at times of economic downturn, an element of scapegoating enters the psyche of the society and history has always shown that the most vulnerable and defenseless are the nominated scapegoats," Einfeld says.
Margaret Piper, executive director of the Refugee Council of Australia, said at an immigration conference in Sydney that the government has fueled community prejudice through the use of emotive language, such as "floods," and "queue-jumpers" in ministerial communiques on asylum-seekers.
Yet a report by the Bureau of Immigration Research found that in recessions, cutting the migrant intake rate has no effect on the unemployment rate. It also found that native-born workers benefit from the presence of new arrivals from the jobs created by immigration's boost to the local economy.