The Overstayer Factor In Australia’s Immigration Debate

The overstayer factor in Australia's immigration debate

ABC Radio Australia
Updated November 4, 2009 12:17:41
Listen: Windows Media

The rising number of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia country by boat continues to dominate political debate.

Many of the asylum seekers are from troubled nations like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, but the largest number of unauthorised visitors in Australia are actually overstayers from the United States, China and Britain.

Presenter: Richard Ewart.
Speakers: Paul Power, CEO, Refugee Council of Australia; Sarah Hanson-Young, Green Party Senator

EWART: Around 1700 asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat have been intercepted so far this year.

Compare that figure to almost 50,000 foreign visitors who have come into the country with a temporary visa, and simply stayed when it ran out.

Most don't stay for long, but some disappear into the wider community with no legal right to be here.

But these individuals who are in breach of Australian law merit almost no political discussion or public attention, while those attempting to reach the country by boat are rarely out of the headlines.

Paul Power, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, says there is a further irony, because it's the boat people who have international law on their side.

POWER: Article 31 of the Refugee Convention allows for people to enter a country without a visa, specifically to make a claim for refugee protection. I think people are probably wrongly applying the principle of maintaining an orderly migration process to the process of refugee protection, which must allow for people to enter based on need.

EWART: The refugee convention is enshrined in Australian law, and Paul Power accuses Australia's politicians of being too ready to score political points over what is actually a very small problem.

POWER: While Australia's having a shrill public debate about around 1,900 asylum seekers who've arrived by boat this year, Pakistan is hosting 1.8 million refugees, predominantly from Afghanistan, Syria is hosting 1.1 million, Iran, 980,000, Jordan, which is a tiny country with a small population, is hosting 500,000 refugees. And Tanzania and Chad, countries far, far poorer than Australia, are hosting more than 300,000 refugees each.

EWART: Green party senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, recently went as far as tabling a parliamentary motion calling for debate on the immigration issue to be conducted in a 'respectful and accurate' manner.

HANSON-YOUNG: We need to be considering the fifty thousand-odd overstayers. We need to be questioning whether it's actually right that we have a refugee intake that is less than eight per cent of our overall immigration quota. At the moment under the Rudd government, our humanitarian intake as a percentage of our overall immigration intake, is less than it was under the Howard government, and half as much as it was under the Keating government.

EWART: Prime Minister Kevin Rudd maintains that Australia is still strong on border protection, but the opposition claims Mr Rudd has thrown down the welcome mat, and the shadow finance minister Joe Hockey says the opinion polls show the public don't like it.

HOCKEY : He has watered down the strong border protection policies of the previous howard Government and now he is paying a price.

EWART: And yet if anything it's on the far wider problem of overstayers where the government has loosened its grip.

The Immigration Minister, Chris Evans, recently blamed much of the overstaying on “young Englishmen who were having too good a time.”

In fact the largest number of overstayers come from the US, followed by China and then the UK.

If overstayers are caught, they are no longer detained but issued with another temporary visa, and according to some reports from within the Department of Immigration they are allowed up to six more months to make their way home.

As one departmental insider told the Australian press “…people can do pretty much whatever they want now.”

This major policy shift has received little publicity and certainly has never been the focus of the fierce debate still raging over arrivals by boat.

And Paul Power says Australia is not the only country where boat people are perceived as the greater threat.

POWER: I was interested to see a few days ago that there's been a public and political debate in Canada about the arrival of one boat and about 70 or 80 Sri Lankan asylum seekers on the west coast of Canada. Canada at the end of last year had 49 thousand people seeking asylum, whose applications were still being processed, and apparently there hasn't been too much public debate about that, but there's been more debate about one boat arrival.

Senator Sarah Hanson-Young says she finds it hard to understand why a relative handful of boat people command all the attention, and so much vitriol.

HANSON-YOUNG:The only assumption I can come to is that it has something to do with the fact that we are this island nation, and it is easier to demonstrate and peddle fear and hysteria through pictures of people on boats, than it is through people coming off planes at Sydney international airport.

EWART: Paul Power too says the controversy over boat people is way out of proportion and he accuses the politicians of either ignoring international law, or just plain ignorance.

POWER:The arrival of asylum seekers has, just for so many years, been a matter of political debate and political squabbling, out of all proportion to its significance in policy terms, and completely divorced in many cases from the human need and the human tragedy involved. I think that there would be majority support for the notion that Australia should have an orderly migration program, but I think there would also be majority support for the fact that vulnerable people who need protection, receive it.

And Sarah Hanson Young says that kind of attitude could explain the apparent public backlash in the opinion polls.

She says it may actually be the government's perceived lack of compassion, rather than any lack of toughness on border control that is turning voters off.

HANSON-YOUNG:They thought we had this debate eight years ago. People are drawing correlations between what's going on in Indonesian waters with the Oceanic Viking, to what happened with the Tampa. This is not a crisis and surely our political leaders can't honestly think that the Australian public will have faith in their management of immigration, if they make a crisis out of every boat that arrives.