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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 January 2005, 11:15 GMT
Tough immigration talk catches on

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

"We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances under which they come" - the uncompromising words of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard, speaking back in November 2001 on the issue of immigration.

His conservative government has a carefully controlled migration system, based on a series of quotas.

Sudanese children aged five and six at St Joachim's School l in Sydney
Sudanese children allowed to remain at a Sydney school

This annual limit is a policy that has been adopted by the Prime Minister's namesake and ideological counterpart in Britain, Michael Howard.

Australia's stance on asylum seekers has also caught the attention of the UK opposition leader.

Anyone arriving in Australia without a proper visa or passport who applies for asylum is automatically locked away while his or her claim is investigated.

Border 'beauty contest'

However, the number of detainees in Australia's network of immigration camps has been slowly declining.

The government points to the success of tough border control measures and the deterrent effect of mandatory detention, which it has justified on health and security grounds.

Critics have branded the policy 'inhumane'.

In Australia, new settlers are split into three categories; those with skills, family reunions and refugees.

This year 13,000 places will be made available for refugees and "others in special humanitarian need".

Economic migrants are the largest group. Most are assessed through a non-discriminatory points system. It is - in effect - a beauty contest for international job seekers.

If you're a young, skilled obstetrician, furniture upholsterer or hairdresser with a good grasp of English then your chances are likely to be good.

Other occupations listed as being particularly in demand are accountants and nurses, jobs worth 60 points.

A high number of points are usually needed to obtain an Australian passport
Australia demands very high standards of its migrants - perhaps they are too high
Gerard Henderson

In many ways Australia operates like a big company, recruiting those people it needs, while rejecting those it doesn't.

Arnold Conyer, a specialist in immigration law in Sydney, told BBC News that many applicants face a tough challenge.

"Most people would require 120 points to gain entry to Australia," he said.

"The level is very high at the moment."

Last year more than 110,000 immigrants arrived in Australia, the highest level for a decade.

The largest number came from the United Kingdom, followed by settlers from New Zealand, China and India.

Peter Hendy from the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the annual quota should be expanded to 135,000 to maximise the economic benefits.

However, he's argued that overseas workers are not a long-term answer to a shortage of skills in Australia.

"Principally the solution lies within our own population through proper training and making sure skilled workers don't retire too early," he explained to the BBC.

Economic tool

Immigration is clearly seen by the authorities as an important economic tool.

"We've shifted very much to a skilled migration intake", said Australia's Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone, "bringing in people who are under 45, are qualified..and contribute to the Australian economy."

Immigration has been a dominant factor in Australian life for more than half a century.

In that time the population has more than doubled. A quarter of all adult Australians were born overseas and everyone else - apart from aborigines - is related to an immigrant somewhere down the line.

Gerard Henderson from the Sydney Institute told BBC News that the Howard government had done a good job managing immigration but warned that the system may be too rigid.

"Australia demands very high standards of its migrants," he said, "but perhaps they are too high."

Mr Henderson, a former adviser to the prime minister, believes that there's scope for allowing less educated and lower income earners into Australia, especially after unemployment recently hit a 30-year low.

Family reunions are the other major component of the immigration quota.

Applicants can apply to join relatives or partners who are either Australian citizens or permanent residents.

'Heartache' over quota

Critics have said the erosion of this part of the annual intake of migrants in favour of more skilled workers had caused a "huge degree of heartache" for many people.

Ian Rintoul, a spokesman for the Refugee Action Coalition, said that Australia needed to urgently re-assess its immigration policies.

"We could look at a structure which is based upon humanitarian concerns," he insisted, "If we had one that is not based upon the preferred socio-economic profile of the government, we'd have a far better situation."

In Britain, Michael Howard's plans for immigration have proved controversial. In Australia, John Howard has no such worries. Tough talk on asylum seekers has been a vote winner in the past.

Opposition to increased levels of immigration has been muted - for that, veteran conservative Mr Howard can - in part - thank a booming economy. In times of austerity, migrants often bear the brunt of the community's fears and frustrations.

This is, however, an age of prosperity for Australia and - for the majority of people here - immigration is not a pressing social or political concern.

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