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The West's, and Australia's, obsession with border protection is unrealistic

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 10 July 2003

It doesn't matter how many coastguard vessels we have churning up and down our vast coastline. The reality is that we can expect more boat people, such as those who entered our waters near Port Hedland.

There is a global refugee population of about 20 million people and Australia will remain one of the most desirable destinations for a few of those millions who have the wherewithal or who are desperate enough to risk life and limb to get here.

To an asylum-seeker, Australia represents the opposite of what they are fleeing - freedom and a chance to succeed economically and socially in a rich country. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock's tough talk about border protection, which Labor frontbencher Julia Gillard shamefully endorsed, misses the point. If the Howard government spent more time, effort and resources trying to help the developing world become more democratic and economically sustainable, the source of refugees would diminish. Spending money on stopping a handful of people who make it to Australia each year on leaky boats is money that could be better spent on our diminishing foreign-aid program.


But Mr Ruddock and Ms Gillard have taken the easy-out. They have pandered to the underside of an island nation that has for generations been inculcated with a sense that somehow, sometime, hordes of foreigners are going to overrun us - something that only looked like happening in World War II when Japan was madly roaming the Pacific.

Because Australia is so difficult to get to, we are not, despite the scaremongering about border protection, facing hordes from the north invading our continent. What neither the Howard government nor the Labor Opposition is prepared to confront is that mass movement of people is a reality in a globalised world. Both are happy to tell Australians about advantages of globalisation - new trade links, improved communications, travel, and leisure and work opportunities. And both encourage foreign capital into Australia.

But when it comes to people, both the major political parties in this country want to maintain a fortress mentality. Both are refusing to face up to the reality as described by a leading European affairs commentator, Neal Ascherson. Mr Ascherson has pointed out that the poor world is moving into the rich world on a scale never seen before.

The realities are that this movement is in the long-run unstoppable, that Europe (and for this one can include Australia) is becoming dependent on immigration as its populations age and diminish, and the distinction between asylum-seeker and economic migrant is meaningless. As Australians we cannot take the upside of globalisation including cheaper products and new industries and ideas without taking the other side, represented by more people wanting to live where better life and economic growth will be.

And if our politicians were serious about trying to ensure the poor world was made less so, then we would be doing something about the fact that Australia's record of generosity to developing world countries has been dismal in recent years. According to the OECD, Australia is ranked only 14th when it comes to foreign-aid expenditure. We spend only 0.25 per cent of the federal budget on aid.

So here's a message to Mr Ruddock and the ALP: stop obsessing about a few boats slipping through and face the reality of the 21st century.


People will keep moving out of poverty and tyranny into areas of wealth and prosperity. Australia's challenge is to help end that poverty and tyranny. Only then will some of those displaced people want to stay at home.

And for the few that do make it to Australia on a leaky boat, let's treat them with dignity and respect. After all, there but for the grace of God, as the saying goes, go we.

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This article was first published in The Herald Sun on 7 July 2003.

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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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A Just Australia
ALP's refugee policy
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