The Magazine

A Different Immigration Mess

The debate in Australia over who gets in.

Sep 9, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 01 • By FRED BARNES
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Sydney
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 officials with asylum-seekers, August 2013

Australian officials with asylum-seekers, August 2013

Newscom

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.

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