A century ago, Australia used a “dictation test” to keep non-whites and selected others from entering the country. It required an immigrant to write 50 words in any language chosen by the customs official who administered the test. The most notorious example occurred in 1934, when a Czech immigrant was told to write a passage in Scottish Gaelic. The test was abolished in 1958.
Australian immigration policy has changed repeatedly since then—three times in the past decade alone. In 2010, nearly 190,000 immigrants were admitted legally, more per capita than entered the United States that year. But it’s illegal immigrants that are a problem in Australia. An average of 3,000 “boat people” were arriving monthly this past spring, and roughly 30,000 await rulings on their requests for asylum.
So America’s immigration mess is not unique. But while Australia’s situation is similar, it’s not exactly the same. The countries are different. Australia is thinly populated—
23 million occupy an area almost as large as the continental United States. It’s an island continent. It has no land borders. Illegal immigrants must arrive by sea. They risk life and limb on rickety boats to reach the Australian shore.
It would be nice if Australia offered hard lessons to guide reform of America’s immigration laws. It doesn’t. But its experience, more than any other country’s, is still worth examining.
n Deterrence. The key to stemming the flow of illegal immigrants is deterring them from attempting to enter in the first place. This was achieved under the “Pacific Solution” adopted by Prime Minister John Howard in 2001. The Australian Navy interdicted boats and forced them either to return to Indonesia or deposit refugees seeking asylum on islands outside the Aussie “migration zone.” The year after the policy was introduced, “arrivals dropped from 43 boats carrying more than 5,000 people, to one boat carrying one asylum seeker,” reported Bridie Jabour of the Guardian.
In 2007, Howard’s Liberal party was defeated. And the new Labor government installed a more relaxed policy that proved to be highly unpopular. Howard’s detention centers on Christmas Island were shut down and a new one was established in Australia. The refugee boats returned.
When Labor’s Kevin Rudd became prime minister for a second time two months ago, he immediately imposed a harsher policy. “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia,” Rudd announced. If found to be legitimate refugees, they would have to settle in Papua New Guinea, a former Australian colony.
n Credibility. When Howard announced the Pacific Solution, he proclaimed Australia’s sovereignty on immigration. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,” he said, rejecting claims his policy fell short of Australia’s international obligations for treating refugees.
Rudd, however, appears to lack credibility in halting illegal entrants, perhaps because he has flip-flopped on the issue. In the 2007 campaign, he promised to stick with the Pacific Solution. But as prime minister, he quickly replaced it with a softer policy. Then this July, he imposed the no-asylum-in-Australia plan. This time, the boats continued to come, bringing approximately 3,000 refugees since Rudd’s announcement.
n Deportation. Once an illegal immigrant sets foot on Australian soil, he usually stays. “In reality, almost no one ever goes home from Australia against their will, no matter what their refugee status determination is,” according to Greg Sheridan of the Australian.
There are reasons to doubt whether most asylum seekers would really suffer persecution if they stayed home. They linger for months in Indonesia without asking for asylum there. They’ve been cleverly trained in making the case for asylum. “The illegal immigration problem essentially reflects a desire by people in poor countries to live in a rich country,” Sheridan wrote.
Nor do they want the “temporary protection visas” (TPV) that Howard offered. These were given to immigrants who’d gained official refugee status. TPVs lasted for three years, but didn’t guarantee permanent visas or allow families to join refugees in Australia. The refugees wanted permanent status.
n Predominance of Muslims. Today most boat people are Muslims from Iran, Iraq, or Afghanistan. They are largely unskilled people for whom there is little work in Australia. Legal immigration policy prioritizes those with education and skills. They come mainly from India and China and have smoothly assimilated into Australian society.
The chief fear about Muslims is that they won’t assimilate and instead will live in the kind of insular neighborhoods where, in other countries, Islamic extremism has flourished. The other worry is welfare. Even after five years in Australia, Muslim households have a high rate of reliance on government support.
Tony Abbott, the Liberal party leader who’s likely to become prime minister after the September 7 election, plans to revive Howard’s Pacific Solution. Indeed, he sounds like Howard. “We run this country and we decide who comes here,” he said. “If you want to stop the boats, you’ve got to change the government, and if you can’t stop the boats, you’re not capable of governing this country.”
As prime minister, Abbott says he “will immediately give new orders to the Navy to tackle illegal boat arrivals and ‘turn back’ the boats where it is safe to do so.” Otherwise, refugees will be steered to offshore processing areas from which transit to Australia is unavailable. Also, TPVs will be issued a work requirement for welfare and no chance of family reunion. And Abbott vows to provide $67 million for joint operations with Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia “to disrupt people smuggling through international deployment of specialist Australian Federal Police Officers.”
“It is my commitment to make a difference from day one,” Abbott told a radio interviewer. It’s quite an agenda. And it’s bound to prompt protests from the refugee rights crowd, Amnesty International, and left-wing groups. But Abbott shouldn’t be fazed. We await the results.
Fred Barnes is an executive editor at The Weekly Standard.