By Siri Gamage –
This topic received public attention recently due to the case of Tamil family that had come by boat and to be deported to Sri Lanka after they exhausted all legal avenues to remain in Australia and a visit by an Australian Major visiting Sri Lanka advocated against any Sri Lankan attempting to come to Australia by boats. The liberal-national conservative government in power has adopted a hardline approach to such arrivals compared to the previous Labour government that allowed people who arrive by boat to come on shore. During that period, more than 1000 people drowned in the sea. Current policy is to detain any boat arrivals in detention camps financed by the Australian government and located in Nauru and Manus island. Such detainees – once they are accepted as refugees -spend many years before they are relocated to third countries. The results of such detention are said to be harmful psychologically. The government deports those who are not deemed to be refugees to original countries.
The majority of Australian population seem to agree with the government policy on the grounds of safeguarding national borders and the integrity of the formal immigration program. Australia takes about 160000 new skilled immigrants as permanent residents annually. It also allows a significant number on temporary work visas and on student visas. There are those who advocate a different approach to refugees but they are in minority. Their main concern is about the humanitarian condition of those held in detention camps and the rights of potential refugees to seek refuge in third countries for protection.
The government believes any relaxation of its hardline policy can encourage people smugglers in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka to restart their business to bring in more people in risky boats for a heavy fee. At the peak of such arrivals under the labour government, the Christmas Island (about 3000kms from Australian mainland) served as a processing centre. At present only the Tamil family destined for deportation is housed there until the present legal case before the courts is finished.
The crucial issue here is why many Sri Lankans, especially of young age, want to come to a country like Australia in the first place? While there are many push factors in Sri Lanka itself (not considered in this article), there are various pull factors in Australia also. Among these, rule of law stands out. Police and security forces are not politicised to the extent one finds it in other Asian countries. They operate under their own legislative and operational powers and clear procedures. They function to maintain law and order and as a matter of practice do not interfere in the civilian life of people. One can contact the police without any fear to seek assistance where it is needed, especially if life is in danger. Police enforce the traffic laws without fear or favour. Fines are enforced irrespective of the status of the driver or the nature of the vehicle.
Another attraction is the ability of people to compete for jobs in the market and secure a descent income and livelihood. No one goes after politicians seeking letters of support or undue influence in securing employment. However, few of those who are close to political parties running the government at a given point in time tend to get appointed to various influential positions and roles. Personal contacts cannot be ruled out completely in appointments but there are checks and balances to monitor corrupt activities. In each State, there are anti-corruption bodies. There is discussion about establishing a federal anti-corruption body also. While Labour party is supportive of such a body, the present Liberal-national government has not yet agreed to such a body. Instead it is talking about a national integrity commission.
Being a parliamentary democracy, Australia has a good welfare system. If and when someone is not able to find employment, sick, aged, have a disability or facing other difficulties, he/she is able to access government welfare provided he/she meets the criteria set by the government for each welfare category. The government spends over 50 billion Australian dollars on welfare annually. I cannot think of any Asian country with a similar system. This can be another attraction for people to try to come to Australia by boat or otherwise.
Australian education system is another attraction, especially for the education of children. Instruction is provided in the English medium with a curriculum approved by each State. Many Sri Lankan students also aspire to higher education in Australian universities. There are about 37 publicly funded universities. However, only about 53% of required funding is provided by the government. Universities have developed mechanisms to provide higher education to international students for a fee as a way of generating additional income. Overall, the income from international education amounts to over 30 billion a year. It is considered the second largest income source in the country. Students who complete degree programs are able to work for two years on a work visa as well. After the two years some secure permanent jobs and permanent visas. However, the path that those who try to come by boat is beset with many legal and physical obstacles compared to those who come to study or those who come by securing a work visa or permanent residency. If those who come by boats land in Australian mainland, they are able tom access Australian legal system to seek refugee status. Government is hell bent on preventing this is from happening. Border security forces intercept boats in the sea and take those inside to Nauru and Manus Island for detention and processing. A private agency contracted by the government run these detention centres.
Immigration helps Australian economy in numerous ways. Once a family arrives here through legal means, they become consumers. They have to rent an apartment to stay, connect to utilities and telephones, buy food from supermarkets, send children to schools, use transport, buy medicine and clothes, etc. All this involves money. Moreover, once they secure employment, they become tax payers. Very few find employment suitable for their qualifications. Many immigrants do odd jobs initially to make ends meet. As time goes on, they learn the ropes and find better employment. If they require an Australian qualification, they follow a course or two also. Having Australian work experience of any sort is a matter Australian employers appreciate when interviewing for jobs. Most jobs in the corporate sector are available through private employment agencies and recruiters. Government jobs are limited. Even for these, recruitment is through recruitment agencies designated by the government. Most government departments have graduate positions also advertised annually. The best and brightest are selected.
Not all immigrants who come to Australia are university qualified. Many of those with vocational qualifications plus work experience also arrive via legal avenues. The key criteria that employers look for is whether a person could do the job for which there is a vacancy. Recommendations are considered only to ascertain this fact. Among Sri Lankan immigrants –including students who get work visas after completion of degrees aspiring to become permanent residents-are those who move to regional areas for a period of time to satisfy visa conditions. Government has introduced policies to encourage potential immigrants or immigrants to move to such areas as they need more population and those with skills. Among them are doctors, engineers and chefs.
Australian people do not interfere in the life of others. They go on with their own lives without bothering about what the other person does, what his/her wealth, work status, family status, religion, ethnicity is? They rather worry about their own day to day issues and problems more so than about others. They are also very practical people. Before engaging a tradesman, they will try to fix any defects in the house themselves. The rich of course has their own distinctive lifestyle and do not generally mingle with the rest. But the personal wealth, qualifications, connections etc. do not seem to make Australians attempting to distinguish themselves from those in lower classes. An appreciation of all kinds of work prevails in the mind of all. Some sort of egalitarianism prevails in day to day interactions –whether at the neighbourhood, market place or government service centre. This is referred to as mateship. Mateship requires one to help the other in situations of distress. If one meets an elected politician in a café, city mall or a shop one is able to talk to him/her as a normal human being. No security detail around them unless of course when the prime minister or a minister attends official functions. People generally tend to follow rules. Even if someone in a line waiting for a bus or a given service breaks the order and try to go to the front such acts are despised. Normally people do not break lines.
Medical service is another attraction for would be immigrants. Government takes an annual percentage (3-4%) from tax payers. It in turn spends such money on hospitals, subsidy for drugs and doctors etc. Anyone can go to a public hospital when not well and get treated. Patients don’t have to pay for the medicine or diagnostic services in a public hospital. Those with private health insurance can go to private hospitals. When visiting a GP, in most cases all what they have to present is the Medicare card issued by the government. However, some GPs charge extra, especially in rural and regional areas. When a person goes to a public hospital, the doctors and nurses treat the person without regard to his/her social, political or economic status (remind me about the way certain prisoners in Lanka are given accommodation in prison hospitals?). What matters to hospital staff is the patient’s illness, diagnosis and treatment in a courteous manner. If a patient in a rural area requires specialised treatment in a city hospital, he/she is transported by air with no cost to the patient.
I have outlined only selected positive aspects of Australian society, life, services etc. in the context of pull factors for potential immigrants and refugees. This does not mean the life is a bed of roses. One has to work very hard to make a living and once all financial commitments are met, not much is left for holidays and entertainment today due to the neoliberal economic model in place, user pay system, indirect fees and charges by State and Federal governments. Contract and casual jobs are increasing compared to lifetime permanent jobs. Job security is not guaranteed in the competitive market place. Private sector companies operate on the basis of performance and the public institutions are following the same model. Nonetheless, due to the welfare system in place, the peaceful environment that exists in society, and less politicisation of major institutions, one can live life knowing that all is not lost when one loses a job or face other life events. This is what is meant by social security. Though a physical wall has not yet been built around Australia, the implementation of a hardline approach to boat arrivals by the government has made it that difficult for any boat loads of refugee seekers to arrive on mainland. Languishing in offshore detention camps for years with no hope of being able to come to Australia even after being recognised as refugees by the UN or with no prospect of moving to another developed country, has made the arrival by boats a risky and unattractive proposition to would be refuge seekers.