Australia has always relied on migrants to help fuel the nation's growth. Currently, only a small proportion of permanent migrants are accepted on purely humanitarian grounds. Much of the heated discussion around this humanitarian migrant stream is focused on border security issues but, as I argued in Part 1 of this series, we would be better off directing our attention, in tandem with others in the region, to the sources of human insecurity that force people to leave their homes.
In 2014 Australia accepted 207,947 permanent migrants, of which 61.8% (128,550) were skilled (see Figure 1). Permanent migrants are a much smaller group than the 630,000 temporary entrants accepted in the same year, which included international students, working holiday makers and 457 visa holders engaged in local businesses, services and research.
The source countries for net migration (arrivals minus departures) to Australia have evolved over the past 100 years. This pace of change has accelerated in the last two decades with a shift from European to Asian origins (see Figure 2). In 2013–14, India and China overtook the UK. The number of Asian migrants in Australia is likely to continue to grow in years to come.
Seven of the top ten source countries for point-based skilled permanent migration are from Asia. India and China alone make up 44% of the total point-based skilled permanent migrants. Temporary skilled migration (subclass 457) also indicates that more Asians than Europeans now come to Australia to work.
Asia is also the leading region for Australia's humanitarian migrant stream. Of the top 10 source countries for humanitarian visas, half are Asian countries: Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Bhutan and Iran. It's important to note that, the disproportionate media coverage of boat people in recent years notwithstanding, only 6.6% (13,768 people) of Australia’s entire permanent migration programme were permanently settled on humanitarian grounds in 2014 (see Figure 4). The scale of this humanitarian migration programme is vastly different from Europe, where millions of refugees and migrants are pouring in from the Middle East and Africa, but still the arrival of refugees by boat in Australia from Southeast Asia has been largely depicted as a crisis and a threat to border security. This was the predominant media treatment of people fleeing state violence and systemised discrimination. The Abbott government, which swept to power in 2013 on a few key promises including its pledge to 'stop the boats', put in place extraordinary measures such as military operations to stop the boats and even clandestine payments to migrant smugglers. In the current election campaign, there is bipartisan support for many aspects of this approach.
Liberal thinkers — not a reference to the Australian political party but in the classic Lockean sense — are concerned about Australia’s international reputation given the Abbott/Turnbull government’s non-compliance with international humanitarian principles. Such concerns are justified; however, what is really worrying is the insecurity-migration spirals that have have taken root in Australia-Asia relations over the past decade.
Two sources of insecurity in Asia have pushed people to leave their homes and risk their lives and those of their families in dangerous boat journeys: prolonged armed conflicts and systematic discrimination. Most asylum seekers in Australia are from war-torn countries or conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, or Burma. Burma has been one of the top source countries for Rohingya asylum seekers in Australia and across the region. Thailand hosts a total of 136,499 refugees, 4712 asylum seekers and 506,197 stateless persons. There are 120,000 refugees living at the Thai-Burma border. Other ethnic minorities in Burma such as the Karen, Karenni, Mon, Shan and Kachin minorities have also been persecuted. The UNHCR is assisting third-country resettlement to destination countries. Australia, which has pledged to boost its humanitarian intake by an additional 12,000 Syrian refugees, accepts significantly more refugees than other developed countries in Asia such as Japan, Korea or Singapore. Last year, for example, Japan rejected 99% of asylum applications it received.
The impact of systematic discrimination echoes through generations. Minority communities lack the material and human resources to set up schools or hospitals and lack basic food and health security. This leads to long-term economic stagnation, underdevelopment, lack of economic opportunity and education, which together lead to long-term economic insecurity. Minority areas often become targets for state-led development, which can lead to forced evictions, internal displacement and environmental degradation. Prolonged internal armed conflicts create political refugees who face fear of persecution, and have many other repercussions.
However, the 1951 UN Convention relating to the status of refugees narrowly defines a refugee as someone who has a well-found fear of persecution when returned. The burden of proof is on asylum seekers and there are many more justifiable causes for forced migration that the Refugee Convention does not cover. The Convention does not, for example, protect refugees driven by economic or environmental insecurity. Moreover, international law is non-binding and states have a tendency to prioritise national security or public order over international humanitarian and human rights norms. These days, states simply ignore the basic principle of non-refoulement which holds that asylum seekers should not be returned to their persecutors.
Most refugees and asylum seekers from Asian countries are in developing countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with a much smaller percentage in Australia’s offshore detention centres. All face various forms of personal, economic, food, health and environment insecurities. We need to switch our focus from border protection to human security in the region to prevent generations of unprotected human lives.