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The Great Immigration Con: Shen Narayanasamy’s 2016 Di Gribble Argument

Read Monday, 10 Oct 2016

Earlier this month, the Wheeler Centre presented the third annual Di Gribble Argument. This year, we invited human rights lawyer Shen Narayanasamy to tackle one of the intractable conversations in Australian public life: stopping the boats. Below is an edited transcript from the speech she delivered at the Regent Theatre and again at the Wheeler Centre in Melbourne. 

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Photograph of Shen Narayanasamy presenting the Di Gribble Argument.
Shen Narayanasamy presenting the Di Gribble Argument.

One year ago I was sitting up high in a glass tower of one of Australia’s biggest banks, promising something I didn’t have. I was there to talk to the bank about companies, like Transfield, that operated Australia’s offshore detention regime. Companies the banks invested in. Companies they loaned money to. Together with a group of committed friends, I was making the case that no respectable business, no bank, should associate itself with the unlawful and abusive system of offshore detention.

HESTA, one of Transfield’s largest shareholders, had just dumped its shares in the company. Now we had the ear of the banks. We discussed the quiet advocacy that particular bank could undertake with the Prime Minister (the banks prefer to keep things quiet). As a prod to the PM to find a better outcome for the people on Manus and Nauru, the bank would flag their uncertain financial support for companies like Transfield.

That’s where my promise came in. The bank wanted also to hand Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull a policy brief on alternatives to offshore detention which could stop people drowning at sea.

‘Sure,’ I promised. ‘I’ll get you that brief.’

I didn’t have it – but I was sure somebody did.

Little did I know, that casual promise would lead me, along with colleagues from GetUp and across the refugee sector, on a critical journey. It was a journey to a truth hidden in plain sight, right under our noses. It would lead us past the alternative policy options themselves, the pantomime of the government’s ‘border security’, all the way to the great migration con.

A political con that: 

  • denies us the opportunity to look at our migration system holistically
  • leaves the system vulnerable to corruption and inequity
  • bars migrants from the potential to truly become part of our community
  • prevents multiculturalism from flourishing; and
  • cheats us of the opportunity to break the deadlock over solutions to offshore detention.

And like all great cons – this one starts with the numbers.

The facts on numbers and intake

A few weeks after my rash promise to the big bank, I was mired in a dizzying array of spreadsheets from the Australian Bureau of Statistics. I was in search of an answer to a simple question: How did a few thousand refugees arriving by boat every year compare to our overall migration intake? Surely we have a total migration figure somewhere? As the experts will testify – not so.

I pored through the figures on permanent migration, from skilled, to family reunion to humanitarian. Then I dug into the burgeoning group of long-stay temporary visa holders, from student and working holiday visa holders, to the often-maligned 457 group. Then I added them all up. My jaw dropped.

At their panic-inducing peak in 2013, boat arrivals brought 25,173 people seeking safety to Australia. Over the same period we welcomed 818,863 people on a variety of long-stay temporary and permanent visas … without anyone batting an eyelid. That’s an average of 2,200 migrants coming through arrival terminals in our airports every single day.

In fact, over the course of just one fortnight, more people arrived in Australia to work, study, and live here than arrived by boat that entire year. But it was the graph function that really blew my mind. (Perhaps the first time anyone has admitted something like that in public.) For when I plugged in all the numbers going back to 1984, I had an initially steady line, that suddenly skyrocketed following the election of one John Winston Howard.

Over the course of just one fortnight, more people arrived in Australia to work, study, and live here than arrived by boat that entire year.

Prime Minister Howard. The deeply conservative leader of a ‘relaxed and comfortable’ Australia. By the time he left office in 2007, he had more than doubled Australia’s intake of migrants. In fact, as a percentage of the population, he doubled the intake compared to any other peak period of immigration in our post-Federation history.

More than the ‘populate or perish’ period of the 1950s. More than during the great thirst for labour during the Snowy Hydro scheme. More than the peak of Vietnamese boat arrivals in the 1970s. Not only did the volume of migrants radically increase under this supposedly conservative prime minister, but who was coming, and for how long did as well.

As Peter Mares outlines in his fantastic book, Not Quite Australian, Howard had stated, ‘I think you either invite somebody to your country to stay as a permanent resident or a citizen or you don’t’. But despite planting a flag for permanent immigration, John Howard in fact began an incredible shift in the opposite direction.

In fact, the year John Howard left office, 87,000 people entered the country on temporary 457 visas alone. And from a time in the mid-1980s when almost one in five people we welcomed came on a humanitarian basis, that humanitarian intake plummeted to 1 in 50 by the time Howard left office. This is a shift that has been carried across by every government since – that has seen Australia move in real terms and numbers from being a settler migrant nation to a temporary migrant nation.

There is … concern, on both sides of politics and within business circles, that if Australians realised how many people came to this country each year, they would reject those numbers.

There it was – statistics staring me in the face – moving my understanding of ourselves as a nation built on immigration, citizenship and multiculturalism to one that in large part effectively treats immigration as a tool for a workforce of non-citizens. 

Confusion and lack of debate

Staring at my graphs, I thought – perhaps I just hadn’t been paying enough attention? I don’t have a PhD in Migration – perhaps wasn’t as much of a con as I thought, maybe I’d missed the coverage.

But wait a minute. I did remember the last 20 years – at least I thought I did. I remember voting in my first federal election in 2001. I remember the lectern-thumping speech when Howard spoke those words: We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.

There was no way you could forget it – we were reminded every night on TV, ads that repeated that phrase until it was knocked into the nation’s head. And during all that time, what I don’t remember is John Howard talking about doubling our immigration intake. Or taking us to our highest proportionate migration intake in a century.

Was I just confused? Were we all suffering under some sort of collective hypnosis? Or perhaps, as happens in politics, did one piece of rhetoric simply overshadowed the rest, leaving us with a distorted memory of Howard’s words and actions.

So I went back to Howard’s 2001 victory speech – a long and thorough exposition of every policy priority under his government. The ‘we will decide’ line made its inevitable appearance, sandwiched comfortably between a discussion of terrorism and Australia’s decency as a nation. But not a word about doubling immigration or a wholesale shift from permanent to temporary migration.

If we’re all a bit confused, perhaps it’s because we’re supposed to be. Immigration specialist and sociologist Katherine Betts commented in 2005:

‘The Howard Government has won many voters from the Labour Party by appealing to patriotic values while, at the same time, responding to pressure from business interests for a higher migration intake. So far, the electoral contradictions inherent in the Government’s immigration policy have escaped the attention of most Coalition voters, and of most political commentators.’

Fast forward nearly a decade after Betts’s comments to the 2013 election, and there were signs the Coalition was more explicitly getting its wires crossed. Fiona Scott, the Liberal candidate for Western Sydney, said to an ABC reporter that asylum seekers are a hot topic ‘because our traffic is overcrowded’. When asked to explain her view, she said: ‘Go sit on the M4, people see 50,000 people come in by boat – that’s more than twice the population of Glenmore Park’. Scott was roundly mocked. But after years of her party’s open-door immigration policy on the one hand, and the dehumanisation of asylum seekers on the other, you could forgive her some confusion about who exactly those pesky foreigners were, clogging up traffic on the highways.

The conservative leader of the day, Tony Abbott, made no effort to clear up the confusion, or to talk up the Liberal legacy of big immigration. ‘Obviously,’ said Abbott, ‘when you’ve got something like 50,000 illegal arrivals by boat that’s a big number … We have all sorts of pressures that are created.’

Photograph of Sophie Black and Shen Narayanasamy at the Wheeler Centre.
Sophie Black speaks with Shen Narayanasamy at the Wheeler Centre.

The fact that, on a purely mathematical basis – 50,000 people creates nowhere near the same pressure as 800,000, seemed to be irrelevant. As they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

The current Prime Minister has a more artful argument. Just two weeks ago, Malcolm Turnbull told the UN: ‘Addressing irregular migration through secure borders has been essential in creating the confidence that the government can manage migration in a way that mitigates risk and focuses humanitarian assistance on those who need it most.’

Indeed public support for immigration has stayed largely positive. But where is Malcolm Turnbull’s evidence that support for his immigration program exists with the knowledge of the major shifts in intake and details of the make-up of the migration program? Every poll I’ve seen on immigration in the last 15 years blandly asks whether you support current immigration levels of not – no historical context, no numbers about what those levels are. As Phillip Coorey, writing in the Australian Financial Review two weeks ago stated about John Howard: ‘Once he brought people smuggling under control, immigration numbers hit near record levels and the punters never noticed.’

Perhaps a better way of working out whether it’s just me that’s confused, or if there is a silence here is to ask: why haven’t both major parties trumpeted their bipartisan support for a massive immigration intake and how wonderfully successful it has been?

Why the silence?

As far as I can see, there are three major reasons why they haven’t – and depending on your level of political cynicism you might think it is more of one than the other.

The first is because, presumably, to speak about immigration, the reality of the intake and the fact that the sky hasn’t fallen in (and in fact our big immigration program has driven jobs and growth) is to empower the Hansonites and invite the anger of the electorate. I can feel this fear – why talk about it? Why say the magic number of immigrants out loud? What if Pauline Hanson hears us?

There is clearly a concern, on both sides of politics, and within business circles, that if Australians actually realised how many people came to this country each year, they would reject those numbers. There is a concern that the power of thundering pundits willing and able to exploit people’s fears around economic uncertainty, willing to stir fear around those numbers, would only grow.

But there’s also a flip side – and this leads us to the second reason. Of course it is easier to win elections by stoking fears around a small number of people who arrive by boat, than mounting the case to a disquieted and anxious public about the benefits of high levels of immigration, indeed uncapped levels of immigration in some areas than mounting a case about the benefits of a completely diverse migration intake, full of Asians, and Muslims, and Indians and Africans. Instead, corner off a few thousand asylum seekers among the 800,000 people arriving each year to be the repository of our fear and the target of our political scapegoating. It clearly serves a purpose.

As George Megalogenis put it in The Howard Factor, it’s the story of how ‘the former Hansonite belt … think Howard is keeping out all the foreigners, when he is bringing them here at a rate Paul Keating never contemplated’.

The third reason comes from a, if not the, driving source behind the shift in our migration programme: business. Big Business clearly supports our new migration programme. They argued vigorously for it behind the scenes and in dense, jargon-heavy submissions about productivity and labour shortages. But will business get stuck into a bitter public debate about migration? About who should come to this country and the circumstances in which they come? No.

As Henry Sherrell, an ex-DIBP bureaucrat and adviser to the Migration Council of Australia puts it with no small degree of irritation on his blog:

‘I’ve worked in and around migration policy for the best part of eight years and I’m increasingly becoming convinced the big business community in Australia doesn’t have the will or the ability to prosecute a public argument on migration. Almost meekly, they sit by the sidelines and watch as others shape discourse and policy.’ 

So if the con exists, if our population is largely in the dark about all this – what are the consequences of this radio silence on the reality of our migration history? 

Why silence doesn’t work

The first thing to note is that the silence clearly hasn’t worked. You can’t confusingly give the impression of tight, secure borders while simultaneously overseeing the largest proportionate intake of migrants Australia has ever seen without the population noticing. Pauline Hanson is back. And unlike the two major parties, she’s not limiting the fear-mongering to ‘boat people’.

If your whole strategy is based on victimising a helpless minority to distract the public from real policy, someone will eventually come along who can play that game much better than you. Meanwhile, wholesales changes (numbers, balance of permanent vs temporary, ripping away of family reunion) that have been made to the migration system have been instigated with relatively little coverage, debate or discussion. It hasn’t stopped the demogogues carrying on but it has had negative impacts for migrants and the rest of us.

As any economist will tell you, when you ration something, you create a black market. And we’ve artificially rationed safety…

In dark places, in a Department of Immigration presiding over a programme the most basic elements of which have been kept largely hidden – bad things flourish. Just a smattering of headlines from the last year give us a snapshot of a migration system that has been left vulnerable to corruption and crime within the Department itself, that spends an eye-watering amount of money outsourcing to contractors like Transfield with no proper tendering process – and that, as a consequence of policy being built on short term gains – is now incredibly complex, arbitrary and burdened by enormous fees.

The 7/11 scandal blew open just one case study of a business building enormous profits from underpaying and overworking vulnerable temporary workers and international students. So who then, is benefiting from the silence?

Not immigrants under this system. Family reunion – the ability to bring your siblings or your parents here now stands at a waiting list of around 25 years (or a payment of almost $100K to jump that queue). Not the 457 visa holders whose pathways to citizenship and permanency look dim. Not the international students – while the university sector and business profits from people paying enormous fees to study here, most of them in the hope to build a life in Australia, for many, thousands of dollars later – this is just a fantasy. Not even the Australian public who, in the absence of any public debate or education or building a mandate around immigration levels, understandably take the view that there is something to fear as a direct result of our politicians’ ramped-up rhetoric around border protection.

And not, as I discovered, moving from my spreadsheet of numbers, and trawling through the history books on Howard – the asylum seekers arriving on boats to our razor wire and turnbacks, our fear and our failure. Because I still have a brief I promised a bank (remember that?) And suddenly – that brief proved remarkably easy to complete. And to explain why – let’s go to another election – the one we just had. 

We’re not exploring alternatives

In the early weeks of the federal election, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton tripped over a political faultline. Careless with his language, Dutton’s insult about refugees ‘not speaking English’ was taken as a slight against all migrants. The public was outraged. Today Show host Karl Stefanovic, a descendent of immigrants himself, slammed the comments as ‘unAustralian’, and suggested Dutton issue an apology. ‘Not only for those arriving now’, said Karl, ‘but those who have come and now gone, giving their blood, sweat and tears, and handed down their values to the next generations, who are many of our leaders today.’ 

Dutton had struck a nerve. But more than that, he exposed a contradiction only obvious when the migration con is revealed. For in a year when more than 800,000 migrants were welcomed to Australia, when the sky didn’t fall in, when our economy was turbo-charged through their entry, and our culture enriched – how did 25,000 fleeing for their lives on leaky boats constitute a crisis?

Both parties gravely warn that a dastardly ‘economic migrant’ might be on refugee boats. Yet at the same time, inviting hundreds of thousands of economic migrants each year, and trying to demonise ‘economic migrants’ to an entire country largely comprised of people who share a history of economic migration.

Within days, Dutton had shifted back to the predictable ground around asylum seekers: Offshore detention may be harsh, he thunders, but it’s the only way to save lives at sea. And because of the utter silence around our immigration intake, we believe it. We’re oblivious to the obvious alternatives. And we don’t bother asking the very people whose journey takes them across rough seas to our shores.

But while doing this brief, we did ask them. And let me tell you Ali’s story. Ali is a Syrian citizen with family living in Australia. He escapes the nightmare of Homs and tries to secure a family reunion visa. But there’s a 20-year waiting list. His family in Australia put in application after application to no avail. After refusing to use his skills as an engineer for a corrupt and brutal Syrian regime, Ali tries to apply for a skilled migrant visa. But because he’s from a war-torn country producing refugees, he’s flagged by the Immigration Department because he could be trying to seek safety here. He tries to get his son a fully paid university place as an international student. Again flags because of the same reason and rejections.

This is the perverse reality of it. The fact that Ali and his family might be fleeing danger not only doesn’t help them, it actually and practically precludes them from the other formal pathways to migrate to this country. We’ve set up an entire system designed to deter potential asylum seekers from any way of getting here other than through an increasingly flatlining humanitarian intake.

So what does Ali do? Well, what would you do when bombs are raining down on your house and there’s no formal way to get out? Run. Pour your savings into the hands of a smuggler and run to the only family you have who is safe – family in Sydney. Unfortunately for Ali, he ran straight into Kevin Rudd and his PNG solution. So Ali has been languishing on Manus Island for three years.

Ali’s story is not unusual – while it is very hard to get accurate numbers from our offshore detention centres due to fact that they operate essentially as black sites – advocates talk all the time about so-and-so whose cousin is in Melbourne, or Perth, or Wollongong. But there are well-researched examples of the phenomenon of deterrence closing down options for formal, safe migration coming from Europe. Surveys of refugees and migrants by the International Organisation of Migration have found that for some groups crossing the Mediterranean, over 70% had a first or second order relative in their destination country. More than half of the Syrians and Iraqis surveyed from October 2015 to May 2016 had relatives in the country of intended destination.

And this is before we get to the usual reasons why people seeking safety can’t apply through the everyday formal migration pathways: they’ve had to leave their documents behind, there’s no sign saying ‘this way – apply for a skilled migration visa’, they have fled to a neighbouring country and can’t complete the requirements necessary there to apply for a visa.

So what are your options if you are one of these people? In a February 2016 speech, Oxford University Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, Alexander Betts, summed up the three realistic options facing people seeking safety in the present system of international refugee protection: ‘lengthy encampment, urban destitution in a neighbouring country or a dangerous journey’. For people seeking safety through an attempted dangerous journey to Australia, they face a fourth fate: mandatory, indefinite detention in remote offshore camps.

As any economist will tell you, when you ration something, you create a black market. And we’ve artificially rationed safety, by utilising a system of detention and deterrence to actively block the safe and usual immigration pathways for those who need them most. So if there is a refugee crisis in Australia, it’s partly of our own making.

Back to the brief

So really, the brief wasn’t that hard to write. The answers were there – staring me in the face, and to the eternal credit of the many hard-working academics and experts in our refugee sector – written out in weighty detail in many different policy papers published here and globally, including by Australia’s Human Rights Commission just last month.

How do we construct an alternative to Manus and Nauru? 

First, we have our migration intake. Remove barriers to it, facilitate access to family reunion and labour migration, facilitate international student places from source countries like Syria, from neighbouring countries like Lebanon and Turkey. We have enacted similar programmes before – why don’t we acknowledge that Australian communities whose home countries, like Syria, are facing war and devastation, should get a priority opportunity to bring over their cousin, or their parents? Why don’t we assist Indonesia and Malaysia in reviewing and assessing the displaced persons in the region to open up opportunities for formal migration not simply under the banner of the refugee intake?

Secondly, re-establish Australia’s participation in humanitarian resettlement from our region. Instead of banning resettlement for UN-assessed refugees from Indonesia, why don’t we use some of the roughly $3 billion that we spend on detention – and up our intake in the humanitarian programme from our region to 50,000 per year? We could focus the intake on the most vulnerable, those least likely to be able to be a part of the rest of our migration programme – quite often women and children.

You can’t give the impression of tight, secure borders while simultaneously overseeing the largest proportionate intake of migrants Australia has ever seen without the population noticing

Thirdly, why don’t we work together with Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to offer an aid package for a stability programme; an initiative that could provide legal rights of stay, an ability for people languishing in Indonesia and Malaysia to work, to study, and to live a life while they are awaiting processing? To do so would change the current situation where the only option to get your child an education for a UN-approved refugee in Indonesia is to get on a boat to elsewhere. We could spend $1billion on this aid programme, per year – it wouldn’t even touch the sides of our current spend – and it would make a remarkable difference to the stability of people moving across our region. Providing this kind of funding and support would be a clear indication to our regional partners that we are willing to come to the table – willing to share responsibility and willing to stop just pushing boats back into their national waters and washing our hands of the matter.

The eventual end point is a regional coordination framework – a regional shared solution, yes. But you have to start somewhere – and it’s clear we can start right here and right now.

I can hear the Government response now: But it’s a dangerous journey – what about the people dying at sea?

So I would say: Yes. It is a dangerous journey. So offer alternatives to the journey. As I just did.

As the poet Warsan Shire, says:

You have to understand,

that no one puts their children in a boat

unless the water is safer than the land

But understanding is far away if you have created ‘boat people’ as a group so very different from the 800,000 others who come here each year. Boat people who are shamed for wanting to seek safety here, while it is a virtue in everybody else. Instead all of our responses have been premised on the notion that the only way asylum seekers can be convinced onto a plane instead of a boat is to enact a dramatic, unlawful and abusive system. But apparently we can’t simply remove the blocks to arriving on a safe plane journey to stop people arriving by boat. Instead we have to detain their children in a way that the vast majority of Australian paediatricians term child abuse. To spend $400,000 per year, per one single asylum seeker to detain them. To tear families apart – to traumatise young men, to leave women showering in front of leering guards and to destroy our international reputation and relations with our closest neighbours.

Because that is what we would rather do than just offer alternative options to human beings seeking some small measure of safety. So what have I learned – other than don’t make rash promises to big banks that you’ll get them a brief in two weeks?

Exposing the con

I’ve learned that the silence must stop. The con has to be ripped open. That there is a way to do this right, and because we are, at best, afraid to talk about it – we are doing it so very wrong. We already have a huge migration programme. And the sky hasn’t fallen in. Instead it has turbo-charged our economy, and greatly enriched our community. We already are a diverse country. This diversity is an enormous social good.

So why do we keep making it hard for people to really be a part of our community? Why do we fail to laud this from the rooftops and allow demagogues and politicians do dominate the debate with slogans and scapegoating? And why do we make it so hard for the people coming here? We put them on temporary visas, we block them repeatedly from getting here through safe, formal pathways, we detain them.

We talk about some immigrants as a threat, and others as good. We say get a job, and then we fail to do anything about a clearly discriminatory labour market which makes it significantly hard to get a job if your last name is Wong, or Aboud.

We say, ‘Get in the queue’ to Ali from Syria, and when he tries to do that, as best he can as bombs rain down on his house – we block him, we detain him, and we expose him to horrific, expensive abuse.

Enough. We have all the tools available to build an immigration programme founded on human dignity and benefit to those coming and to those of us here already – and there’s no earthly reason people seeking safety can’t be part of it beyond cold, calculating politics.

And that, friends, is the argument I put to you tonight.


Shen Narayanasamy appears on ABC TV’s Q&A tonight.

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The Wheeler Centre acknowledges the Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung people of the Kulin Nation as the traditional owners of the land on which we work. We pay our respects to the people of the Kulin Nation and all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders, past and present.