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Wednesday, 24 October, 2001, 13:50 GMT 14:50 UK
Australia's great immigration debate
By Rosie Goldsmith
On 26 August this year the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, rescued 433 asylum seekers, most of them Afghans, from a sinking ferry. They had travelled thousands of miles but on this last stretch were refused entry to Australia.
Now, the asylum seekers are in New Zealand or sweltering in a detention centre on the Pacific island of Nauru while they wait to have their asylum claims legitimised.
"I believe it is in Australia's national interests that we draw a line on what is increasingly becoming an uncontrollable number of illegal arrivals in this country."
Australia faces an election in November and this tough stance on immigration has been popular.
Australia is a nation of immigrants - the original "boat people" arrived on the first fleet from England in 1788. Initially they were British, then after the Second World War, other Europeans arrived and then the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s.
In the wake of the Tampa crisis I went to Australia to meet some of the immigrants who've come to Australia over the past 50 years to ask what's changed in government policy and public opinion. Why is this country, apparently so proud of its multicultural heritage, now adopting such a hard line?
Afghan refugees in Australia
After the 11 September attacks on the US and the military response in Afghanistan, the whole issue was given added urgency: Afghans are now the largest group of refugees on the move in the world.
Australia maintains it has always been generous to genuine refugees. It already hosts 14,000 Afghans - once refugees, now legitimate citizens - half of them in Sydney which is where I spent a day with one community.
One of the women told me there had been attacks on Muslims in Australia too - on mosques and buses, "simply because we wear scarves. People also think all Afghans are Taleban and they vilify us."
What, I asked, did they think of the "Tampa Afghans"?
"They're queue jumpers and economic migrants!"
I was surprised to hear them say this. They echoed precisely what the hardline Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock, has been saying in public.
But didn't they see the paradox? I suggested that they might not be here today if the Australian Government had behaved in the same way with them.
"It's unfair! We know families who've been waiting 10 years to come here. People are eating grass in Afghanistan: how can any Afghan afford to pay all that money to people smugglers to get here?"
I then met Shamus, a recent immigrant from Northern Alliance territory in Afghanistan. He's just been granted a temporary visa. He is 36 but looks older. "I left behind a wife, mother and four children," he told me.
He admitted that he had paid middlemen to get here - his flight from Pakistan to Indonesia, then the boat to Australia cost US $4,000 in all.
"But how could you afford that?" I asked.
"I sold my family plot of land in the north. I was a taxi driver in Kabul. I sold both my taxis. It was not easy to leave my family but the Taleban would have killed me. Other people borrow money from friends and family overseas to come here."
Shamus had just been released from a detention centre.
Many countries now use detention to sort out the bona fide from the bogus asylum seeker but Australia is one of the few countries compulsorily to detain and lock up all illegal immigrants on arrival in order to process their claims.
There are five centres in Australia holding at present nearly 3,000 people - including children. They are controversial places but the government sees them as a necessary deterrent.
I'd heard that conditions inside were grim but journalists are not allowed in to find out and detainees are not allowed out. There had to be a way.
One detention centre is located in Sydney in a suburb called Villawood. I was told I could try to enter as a "social visitor" but must specify whom I was going to visit and why. I was given the name of a detainee.
I arrived at Villawood with bags of fruit and baby food as gifts. It's a frightening place: row upon row of five metre-high fences topped with razor wire and airport-like security. I was searched and my belongings were put in a locker. But I got in.
I was then allowed into the visitor's compound where I spent two tough hours talking mainly to Afghans.
Within a radius of five metres I met three trained doctors. One said he had been there two and a half years, another one and a half. The government maintains that most cases are processed within 15 weeks. Depression was endemic. One young man had been cutting his arms - I could see the scars. He was very disturbed.
One of the doctors said: "I have no idea what's happening to my case. We are constantly being mustered - like in the army - to have our identity cards checked, even in the night, three times every night."
Immigration is the talk of the nation. Open any newspaper, turn on any TV or radio and there it is. It's as divisive as the Vietnam War was for Australians. They fought in that war, and like the Americans, suffered huge moral and physical defeat.
In the 1970s, many Vietnamese people wanted to escape the victorious communists. In a departure from its quotas and policy at the time the government allowed thousands of Vietnamese boat people to come to Australia. Today they are happy on the whole, hard-working and respected citizens.
I met Mrs Le Lam - now Australia's most famous Vietnamese politician - in Sydney. She had come from Saigon. "I am so grateful to this country," she told me.
I asked her whether she saw the intriguing similarity of her case with the Afghans today. Should the government make exceptions as they had done with her?
"This country has to be flexible. These people risked their lives to get here."
The government's view
Armed with my observations and interviews I visited the doughty and outspoken Immigration Minister, Philip Ruddock.
Should Australia now make exceptions, I asked him, and adopt a more humanitarian approach?
"We have always made exceptions, and have participated in every burden-sharing exercise. But when we asked for burden-sharing with the East Timorese (two years ago), I don't recall Britain taking people. It was out-of-sight, out-of-mind. Why don't you drop your quotas in the UK?"
"Mr Ruddock, why do you have detention centres?" I continued.
"The reason is very clear," he answered. "We have security issues, which have assumed far more importance now, post the tragic events in the USA where some of the movements it is said occurred by people using asylum claims."
"But Mr Ruddock, they look like prisons. I visited one - not as a journalist but as a friend of a detainee." The Minister was briefly ruffled.
"They are not prisons. The standard in detention centres is of a high order. We have to check the refugees while their claims are being processed - we don't know who they are. Many countries now see that detention is the only way forward."
Mr Ruddock and his government are not about to deviate from their tough stance. And they will probably win next month's elections, partly because of the hard line they've taken on the refugee issue. But in this country of immigrants what will be the long-term fall-out of this new stringency?
And what will happen to Australia's highly praised multiculturalism and the diversity that it was celebrating with such fervour at last year's Sydney Olympics? Watch this space.
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