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February 07, 2005

Immigration: How the Australians Do It

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Immigration will be a key issue in the coming British General Election. The Australian system of immigration controls are often invoked - either as a model for Britain to follow or as an example of a supposedly racist immigration system - in debates on appropriate immigration controls for the UK. Prof. William D. Rubinstein, of the University of Wales - Aberystwyth, explains how the Australian immigration system works and why he believes it is a good system. As with everything the Social Affairs Unit publishes, the views expressed in this article are the author's own, and not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director, nor do they represent the views of the University of Wales.

The core of the immigration problem which both parties now concede Britain faces can be summarized in a few sentences. In 2004, there were 13.2 million births in the Developed World, and 119.5 million births in the Less-Developed World, a ratio which has existed for three or four decades. Many of those in the Less-Developed World are desperately poor, and many will live out their lives in countries of low or no economic growth where there is chronic, endemic poverty and chronic unemployment. As a result, vast numbers want to emigrate to the prosperous West, and many would do anything to get to a country like Britain with full employment, including lying about their status as would-be economic migrants rather than refugees.

One might consider a few other current realities, some of which are less well known than they ought to be. Everyone knows that the world has experienced a population explosion, but few are aware of its precise dimensions. According to demographers, the total population of the earth reached one billion in 1804, two billion in 1927, three billion in 1960, four billion in 1974, five billion in 1987, and six billion in 1999. It will grow, at a somewhat slower pace, to seven billion in 2012 and to nine billion in 2043. Because of Western medicine - white colonialism apparently did some good things - the population of the Indian subcontinent (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka) was usually estimated at about 450 million when the British got out in the late 1940s, but is now nearly 1.4 billion. Within the overall population of the world, the percentage of the total population in the Developed world has declined dramatically compared with the Less-Developed world. In 1950 - and despite the twentieth century's slaughterhouses and mass emigration - Europe's percentage of the world's overall population stood at 21.8 per cent. This declined to 12.0 per cent in 2000, and is predicted to decline to only 6.5 per cent by 2050. Most Western nations now have fertility rates below the replacement level, although this fact has been balanced by longer life-spans and many more elderly people.

Although there thus appears to be a marriage of true minds - many in the Less-Developed World want to come here, while the population of the Developed World declines in relative terms - of course there are difficulties. Immigrants simply cannot arrive without check or limit: there must be some bounding edge to the number who are permitted to arrive in any year.

Immigrants from the Less-Developed World are, and always will be, visibly different from the majority, and are also distinguished by a range of customs, religions, and languages which often make assimilation extremely difficult. In the British way of doing things, many have no marketable skills, but have been allowed to come here purely as cheap, unskilled labour, especially in London. Most settle in recognizable neighbourhoods which can often be described as ghettos, minority ethnic enclaves which frequently show no sign of dispersing. For instance, the London borough of Brent now has a non-white majority. It does so not merely because of increased heavy immigration from overseas, but because whites simply move out - a phenomenon, well-known in the United States as "white flight". This has received far less attention than it deserves. Many if not most of those whites who have moved out are, almost certainly, lifelong Labour supporters and certainly not Tories or National Front racists, just as most of those whites who moved out of Brooklyn, the Bronx, and south Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s were lifelong liberal Democrats who would be shocked to be described as racists.

While the issue of immigration virtually disappeared from the agenda by the mid-1990s because the Tory government appeared to have brought it under control, it has now re-emerged as electoral dynamite, as Tony Blair and his Cabinet realize only too well. The Blair government appeared to have de facto abandoned any realistic immigration controls, especially under Jack Straw's Home Secretaryship. It appeared to have sought out and encouraged the settlement of persons with few or no marketable skills to work as menials in the public service, transport, or bottom-of-the-barrel catering and hotel jobs: in other words, in my view it has encouraged the exploitation of cheap labour from the Less-Developed World rather than facilitate automation or see wages rise to satisfactory levels. One wonders what Keir Hardie would say.

Having apparently realized the error of its ways - immediately before a general election and with well-publicized Tory prodding - Labour is apparently now committed, just as the Tories are, to introducing the Australian immigration system, or something like it, as the basis of any revised system here.

It would therefore be useful to consider how it works. I should note that I lived in Australia from 1976 until 1995 and liaise on almost a daily basis with my relatives, friends, and colleagues there. The main differences between the Australian system and the British system - if that is the right word - which have existed in the recent past are as follows: Australia sets an annual limit of the number of migrants who are allowed to enter the country in a year as well as an annual limit on the number of refugees. Non-refugee migration is essentially of three types: skilled migrants, employer-sponsored migrants, and family reunion.

To qualify, one must get a certain number of points, which are awarded for knowing English, being well-educated, having employment skills in demand, being willing to settle in remote areas, bringing substantial capital with one, and so on. It is, in other words, a system deliberately designed to encourage the cream to come to Australia, and is deliberately designed to keep out unskilled migrants, most of whom are necessarily from the Less-Developed World. A Bangladeshi brain surgeon who trained at Guy's Hospital would probably have a 99 per cent chance of gaining admission to Australia, while an illiterate Bangladeshi peasant would have a nil chance, unless he was somehow sponsored by a relative or employer. The Australian government thus offloads the cost of education and training on a would-be immigrant as a requirement for giving him permission to come.

It should be noted that the number of migrants allowed to come to Australia under this scheme is both flexible and large: it was 80,000 a year in the mid-1990s and is around 120,000 a year today, the equivalent of 350,000 migrants a year to Britain. About 13,000 refugees are allowed to come to Australia annually, also a number with a strict limit. Refugees do not have an automatic right to come to Australia, and, if they simply turn up in the country and claim to be refugees, must prove this through a rigorous process. The Australian government controversially incarcerates all such purported refugees, including their children, in detention centres on an indefinite basis, and will rigorously insist on deporting anyone who cannot prove their claim before a tribunal.

Australia thus has a system which is flexible at the top, but almost wholly inflexible at the bottom, virtually the precise opposite of the British system under Blair. As a result, although a left-liberal refugee lobby obviously exists in Australia which is vocal and has no trouble generating publicity for its views, the Australian immigration system has bipartisan support from both the conservatives and also, it should be noted, the opposition Australian Labor Party. The net result of this is a system which is actually more generous than that in Britain as to the numbers of immigrants admitted, which seems to work much better, and arouse far less controversy, than our system.

To be sure, Australia has the great natural advantage of being so remote that most phoney "asylum seekers" and clandestine economic migrants cannot succeed in getting there, but there is no question of making the system less rigorous than it is. While well-qualified migrants from the the Developed World and the Less-Developed World are readily admitted, the masses of the impoverished in the Less-Developed World simply will not be able to come to Australia. It is for their own governments to provide them with futures. In the UK, Labour seems to be belatedly joining the Tories in accepting these harsh realities.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth.


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I lived abroad for many years and returned to this country five years ago. I was immediately struck by the problem of excessive immigration - both from what I could see and the feelings expressed by other people with whom I came into contact.
The protests were loud and frequent but largely ignored by both the government and the opposition. Suddenly, Michael Howard has decided that it is a matter of some importance and Tony Blair now has the effrontery to express in patronizing tones and as though he is defending a position that doesn't already have clear public support, that "this is something we must do" - or words to that effect.
God save us from politicians!

Posted by: Henry Kaye at February 8, 2005 07:19 PM
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getting a fucking clue, I live in Australia, the refugee policies are draconian and inhumane.

Posted by: Jb at October 29, 2005 03:28 PM
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