11: It's Time to Integrate our Stranded Boat People

The recent massacre of innocents in Paris and French President Francois Hollande’s declaration of a ‘merciless’ war on ISIS, have heightened the danger of aggravated anti-Muslim sentiment in the West at large. The fact that huge numbers of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa are pouring into Europe and that a small number of them are likely to be ISIS infiltrators exacerbates this problem, even outside Europe. 

Both problems are real and serious. But for this very reason it is time we, in Australia, took active and imaginative steps to integrate into our stable, multi-cultural society the tens of thousands of boat people stranded here and surviving in limbo on temporary bridging visas.

This issue has been divisive long enough. The core debate had to do with border security. That security has been established. But, as Scott Morrison, pointed out last May, before becoming Treasurer, we risk creating an impoverished and frustrated underclass ‘vulnerable to the predations of criminals and extremists’ unless we now embrace and integrate these people. 

We need to remind ourselves that, with very few exceptions, they came here for either of two reasons: out of fear and desperation or, frankly, as economic migrants seeking a better life. We should demonstrate that here they can, indeed, live free from fear and that, if prepared to work hard like other waves of migrants, they do have a good chance at achieving the better life they dreamed of.

As Charles Bremner pointed out in The Times of London last Thursday, Muslim ghettos in Paris and in parts of Belgium have been the incubators in which the recent terrorist madness has bred. We should take deliberate steps to ensure, to the best of our ability, that such slums and ghettos do not develop in Australia’s cities. 

The first step would be to acknowledge the ordinary humanity of these stranded people, much as Bob Hawke embraced the tens of thousands of Chinese nationals stranded here after the atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party on 4 June 1989. These people are overwhelmingly from turbulent and unpleasant parts of the world. Our interest, as well as our principles, should dictate that we now say to them: ‘You are strangers in our midst and we will make you welcome.’

The larger problem of stateless or displaced people in the outside world is huge and we can only make a modest contribution to addressing it. This would be both a good start and a prudent measure as regards our own social stability and cohesion, as Scott Morrison, who worked to secure our borders, has acknowledged. It would demonstrate that we are not ourselves merely fearful, much less paranoid; but humane and self-assured.

Among those sub-groups of asylum seekers who should receive particular understanding are two Muslim minority groups: the Hazaras and the Rohingyas. The former are the most persecuted ethnic minority in Central Asia, especially in Afghanistan and Iran. They are persecuted by fellow Muslims on ethnic as well as sectarian grounds. The Rohingyas are persecuted by hard-line Buddhists in Burma (Myanmar); not only by the fascistic junta that has so long tyrannized the country, but by the Burmese elite and the Buddhist monks.

It is six months since Mr Morrison’s insightful remark. The horrors that have just occurred in Paris should serve as a wake-up call, not to appease brutal Islamists, but to embrace those who have sought our protection, to redouble our efforts to bolster our success as a humane melting pot society and to engage constructively in the immense international challenge of how to succour the tens of millions of stateless and uprooted people who have fallen foul of the world’s more violent and heartless regimes.

Uthman Badar and others from Hizb ut Tahrir declared recently that it was ‘oppressive’ of Australian society to seek to assimilate Muslims and to require a commitment from them to democratic rules and values. It’s time to show that, in fact, such assimilation and such rules are precisely what make Australia a place of authentic asylum and a place worth protecting. The risk we face right now is leaving just enough of our migrants out on the vulnerable fringes of our society that the firebrands of Hizb ut Tahrir and other Islamist bodies win more recruits to their benighted cause.

If we take this step – offering those now in our midst the path to citizenship thus far denied them – several things are likely to follow. Firstly, the best and most energetic among them, with the most to gain from being here, will seize that offer with both hands and become good citizens. Secondly, the few who have come with malign intentions will become more isolated and easier to detect. Thirdly, while our borders remain secure and our immigration policies sovereign, we will have refuted those who, often hypocritically, denounce our policies as inhumane and mean-spirited.

To secure these benefits, we should act not grudgingly or half-heartedly, but deliberately and decisively. The first step would be to engage with representatives from the different ethnic groups involved in order to determine to a first approximation the range of people we are dealing with and their current condition. The second step would be to convert temporary bridging visas into work visas and make clear that, while such visas will be revoked for those who gravitate towards militant Islamism, for the rest – the overwhelming majority – the way forward to permanent residency and ultimate citizenship is open.

This is a measure that should, at this juncture, win bipartisan support. It should bring together in the middle ground of considered policy, border security and humane initiative, all those from the Green Left to the Coalition benches. It would enable them to put aside for the moment their partisan political bickering and attempts at cheap point scoring and agree on a policy for both the national good and the moral good. Let’s see it happen. Yes, Prime Minister?