The decisions of the Refugee Review Tribunal make disheartening reading.
It hears appeals from individuals who have had their application for a protection visa refused.
For instance: the Fijian man who applied for protection because “my educational outlook and possible employment opportunities may not allow me to reach my fullest potential”. Not really persecution, so he was refused a protection visa and refused entry into Australia to find work.
Or the Lebanese resident who claimed to be pursued by the terrorist group Fatah al-Islam, but applied for a protection visa because he lost his job and needed work. He was refused, too. Or the Indonesian woman seeking protection “due to economic hardship as it was impossible to make a living and support her young child”. Also refused.
The tribunal’s decisions are no doubt correct in law. Applicants often have inconsistent stories, leading the tribunal to question their truthfulness. Others simply do not fit the legal criteria for humanitarian entry. They do not have a “well-founded fear of being persecuted”.
But is Australia really better off having refused these individuals a visa?
Certainly the applicants are not. They would not have qualified for one of our numerous skilled migration programs. For many trying to get into Australia, claims of political or religious persecution are just pretexts: the real reason they want humanitarian visas is to seek employment and to participate in Australia’s high standard of living.
Advocates of strong border protection have dismissed these types of visa-seekers as “economic” refugees. And with asylum numbers booming, refugees fleeing poverty rather than persecution are clogging up the processing of humanitarian entrants.
Here is one way to fix that. The government could introduce a visa category for economic refugees.
After all, fleeing unemployment and destitution is just as justifiable as fleeing political persecution. Whatever moral obligation we have to accept political refugees applies just as easily to economic ones.
Few of the usual arguments against migration apply to economic refugees. For example, they need not be a drain on taxpayers.
Sure, humanitarian entrants immediately qualify for a wide range of government programs. They get caseworkers, language lessons and subsidised counselling. They receive settlement grants, crisis payments and Centrelink benefits and advances.
Yet a program for economic refugees needn’t be so generous. If migrants flee to Australia to seek employment, it is reasonable to insist they find employment. Or, at the very least, refuse to support them if they do not. Migrants who come to Australia looking for work seek to contribute more than they take.
Those three people rejected by the Refugee Review Tribunal were eager find employment. And, presumably, they were eager to spend. They could have contributed to our economy, society and culture.
There is an enormous need in agricultural industries for workers – an unskilled demand not being supplied by Australians – and significant demand in Australia’s north-west, where a lack of unskilled labour has inflated wages to an exaggerated degree. Low-skilled labour (with its low wages) could fill a substantial gap in the urban labour market for nannies, live-in carers and house cleaners.
Bosses such as Rio Tinto’s Sam Walsh and Leighton Holdings’ Wal King have made it clear heavy red tape for sponsored employment visas are restraining their ability to bring in migrant workers.
The Australian National University’s Professor Peter McDonald argued last week foreign contract employees are needed to build vital infrastructure. Economic refugees would be ideal candidates.
If that demand doesn’t exist, then economic refugees will not be interested in coming here in the first place.
Of course, migrant labour should not be used as an excuse to ignore policy problems in our higher education and training sectors. But we have a strong economy and businesses looking for labour.
We also must remember that migrants tend to be more entrepreneurial than everybody else – economic refugees make their own opportunities for work. So to be rejecting possible participants in our economy at the same time we are crying out for them is inexplicable.
And it should not need to be said, but allowing people to seek work and opportunity in Australia is a moral and humane imperative. The tragedy on Christmas Island should remind us of how desperate some are to find a better life here.
Allowing economic migrants into Australia also helps the developing world. The money migrants send back to their home countries is the unsung engine of globalisation.
According to one survey, 96 per cent of migrants from the Horn of Africa remitted part of their earnings back to family and friends at home. In 2006 (the last good estimate we have), migrants in Australia remitted $2.8 billion to the developing world.
It is more than we spent on foreign aid that year: $2.1 billion. Globally, the amount transferred in remittances is larger than that spent on aid. This money goes straight to families, rather than being filtered through aid agencies or corrupt governments.
So when three people are refused residency in Australia because they don’t have a well-founded fear of persecution, most people’s gut reaction might be that the legal system is working as it should.
But every economic refugee – every potential worker and consumer – we exclude makes Australia ever so slightly poorer.