May 14th 2011

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: The death of Islamic terrorism?

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Can Julia Gillard deliver on her three core commitments?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Growing anger at supermarket price war

NEW SOUTH WALES: NSW Liberals set new course

CHILDCARE: Exposing the lies in the childcare funding debate

RESEARCH PROJECT: Australia's food security under threat

CARBON TAX: Remorseless killers of our industries and jobs

MILITARY: Dispatching women into frontline combat

MARINE SCIENCE: Bluefin tuna: an endangered species?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Prime Minister Gillard kowtows to China

CHINA: China's economy at risk of debt crisis

UNITED STATES: PC intimidation threatens the rule of law

HISTORY: The long debate on how to alleviate poverty

IMMIGRATION: The vexed question of illegal immigration

OPINION: An inglorious tale of guile, envy and deceit

BOOK REVIEW: The deceivers and the deceived

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The vexed question of illegal immigration

by Dr Christopher J. Ward

News Weekly, May 14, 2011

On April 20 this year, the federal Villawood detention centre in New South Wales was the scene of an ugly riot, with fires gutting nine buildings and protesters sitting on the roof hurling tiles at firemen and other emergency service personnel who were trying to restore order.

It was not a particularly edifying scene and was reminiscent of recent similar incidents, including last year’s clashes at Villawood and on Christmas Island.

Among the 100 recent Villawood rioters, an estimated 22 were believed to be responsible for carrying out arson and attacks and will face criminal charges.

They might plead that their applications for asylum status are taking too long to be processed. However, that scarcely constitutes a reasonable defence of their actions.

Whether she likes it or not, Julia Gillard, like her predecessors, Kevin Rudd and John Howard, has had to grapple with the thorny question of refugees, who are usually categorised by the media as illegal immigrants, especially the “boat people”. Incidents such as those at Villawood and similar centres tend to bring out the worst in people and provoke angry calls to talkback radio and the heckling and insulting of politicians.

However, the Federal Government is now setting out a new policy that would deny permanent residence status to those convicted of crimes in detention. It will revert to the temporary protection visas for refugees used by the Howard Government. To many this is seen as a retrograde step, while for others it isn’t tough enough — they want harsher penalties, such as instant deportation enacted immediately.

The “torching of Villawood”, as the more hysterical reports would have it, came at a particularly unfortunate or uncomfortable time, whether by design or sheer bad luck, just before Easter and Anzac Day.

There is no such thing as a good time to have riots in detention centres and thereby to inflame public reaction on our TV screens. However, it is as good an occasion as any to re-examine some of the fundamental principles underlying immigration policy and citizenship requirements.

To complete the rather dismal background to this problem, it should be noted that a similar situation is developing in Tasmania, where the Federal Government is renovating a former army base at Ponteville on the northern outskirts of Hobart. It is expected that the refurbished barracks will provide accommodation for 400 males (100 initially).

Assurances have been given that they will not stay long — only as long as it is required to process their applications for resident status. However, the claim by the federal minister that it is only an interim measure, expected to last for about six months, has been met with general disbelief. The expenditure runs into millions of dollars.

The mayor of Brighton, whose bailiwick extends to Ponteville, welcomed the government initiative and expressed the hope that it would bring a measure of prosperity to an area that is demographically defined as being overrepresented by tenants of government housing and people of low socioeconomic status. However, the mayor of an adjoining municipality weighed in with misgivings about Muslim migrants and fears of the possibility of terrorism.

Partly to deflect claims that there had been no consultation with the community, a public meeting was held on April 20, paradoxically on the same night as the Villawood riot, to discuss the matter. Unfortunately, it produced an entirely predictable outcome: a rather nasty episode of racism and xenophobia, along with outright hostility to the mayor, a female Anglican minister and Immigration Department officials and others who spoke in favour of the scheme.

The Tasmanian situation is mentioned here specifically because it is the smallest state, has a weak economy and, according to some critics, is too insular and “Anglo” in its ethnicity. However, it will be the poorer outer suburban areas of Tasmanian population centres which face the prospect of hosting hundreds of male refugees.

What is certain is that the problem with illegal immigration is not likely to disappear overnight, and no government will be able to satisfy every citizen when it comes to handling the problems of processing such would-be migrants.

Around Australia, the number of illegal migrants housed in detention centres has increased, largely because of international political turmoil. Although Australia is geographically remote from many of the conflicts which cause refugees, it is nonetheless seen as an desirable destination — a large, rather empty continent.

The cynical part of me asks whether Australians generally realise that this country has always accepted migrants and whether a consensus exists that regards immigration as ultimately beneficial.

At a more basic level, most of the protests result from migrants having been located in detention centres among the poorer parts of the country, measured by socioeconomic status.

One wonders what the effect would be if the detention centres were located in middle-class and wealthier areas.

Dr Christopher J. Ward is a social scientist.

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