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What explains the popularity of the Australian immigration model?

Over the last few years political parties in several European countries have been advocating the “Australian model” as a way to prevent unwanted boat refugees from arriving on European shores. Since 2001, by means of the Border Protection Bill, Australia has adopted a strict policy of not allowing boat refugees to enter Australian waters. The country does accept a limited number of refugees each year, but only holds the 45th position in the global ranking of countries who accept refugees relative to their GDP.

Boat refugees who reach Australian territory are detained at offshore camps at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru which are paid for by the Australian government and run by private contractors. It is from these islands – and not in Australia – that they can make an asylum claim, while living in miserable conditions of confinement as shown by photographer Hoda Afshar.

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has made it clear that apart from logistical motives, there is also an ideological dimension to Australia’s policy: massive immigration in a short timespan could potentially threaten western civilisation and have irreversible effects.

The massive refugee influx since 2015 combined with the idea that European civilisation is under attack from uncontrolled (Muslim) migration has made many European politicians look at Australia as an example of an advanced western democracy that has managed to morally and legally outsource the refugee problem. Some political parties in Europe have suggested that Morocco could act as a kind of Nauru, though admitting that the facilities and conditions should be better than those offered by Australia.

While there can be no doubt that Australia has had a strict policy towards boat refugees for almost two decades now, Australia is aware that – with 28% of the current Australian population not being born in Australia – it is very dependent on migration. However, its policy heavily targets high-skilled migrants and several factors make it easier for Australia to enforce this policy than for Europe. Unlike European countries it did not have guest workers nor a large colonial empire, and therefore no corresponding historical debt. Being an island, it has also been relatively easy to secure the borders.

Every year 200,000 permanent residence permits as well as 700,000 temporary (working) visas are granted, based on a policy that selects migrants depending on their value to Australian society. Jock Collins explains how, similar to what President Trump expects of his recently presented immigration plan for the US, “the big trend over the past two decades [in Australia] has been to cut dramatically the relative size of the family reunion component and increase the skilled component”. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has concluded that this policy led to a generally strong labour-market performance of the immigrants admitted by Australia.

The other big change over the past two decades is the shift from permanent to temporary immigration. “This dramatic switch in Australian immigration policy has been largely undebated”, according to Collins, “as the oxygen of public and political immigration discourses has been exhausted by the boat people issue, numerically a tiny component of Australia’s recent immigration history”. Regarding the trend of temporary migration rapidly increasing relative to permanent migration, MPI warns that “while the availability of temporary visas allows employers flexibility to adjust recruitment to their workforce needs, it also has the potential to undermine long-term integration as immigrants must navigate an increasing number of visa status changes to stay in Australia. It also puts more power in the hands of employers who act as sponsors and thus have influence over the ability of temporary migrants to stay in Australia”.

It is important to note that in selecting high-skilled migrants Australia does not select based on country of origin, cultural background, religion or political affiliation. In that sense, Abbott’s abovementioned statement should be nuanced, as the support for multiculturalism remains strong. The admiration for the Australian model among certain European politicians therefore partly rests on a flawed analysis, as they claim that implementation of the Australian model will act as a barrier to migrants from a particular country or adhering to a certain religion. The non-discriminatory aspect of the Australian model is overlooked or deliberately ignored by European politicians who argue in favour of emulating Australia’s strategy.

Author: Dr. Olivier Vonk

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