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Our Friends Down Under: A Closeup On Australia's Migration Policies

by Jose Latour

Australia's immigration department is considering a change in its historically liberal immigration laws which would require visitors from certain "high-risk" countries to produce financial and employment records before being given tourist visas. The list of nations includes Afghanistan, China, Fiji (go figure), Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Yugoslavia.

(Am I the only one who noticed that none of the countries from which the September 11 terrorists hailed are on the list?)

According to a recent CNN report on Australia's pondered changes, the Australian government is only "considering" these changes, which are not targeted at any particular nationalities.

According to the article, some 3.5 million people visit Australia annually, with tourism growth rates of 6% predicted through the year 2010. Because of the importance of tourism as an economic sector in Australia, the government would do well to weigh carefully any proposed changes on the issuance of tourist visas not only as they relatea to the direct economic impact of visitors from those countries which ultimately make the "high-risk" list, but also from the overall publicity the creation of a such a list would create within the worldwide media. Still, given the global awareness to issues of terrorism, there seems to be a global understanding of the need for some sort of increased security as part of any nation's internal domestic policy change.

CNN reported that the changes being contemplated by Australia would include providing proof (in the form of employment and financial statements) that the individual had sufficient financial inducement to return to his/her home country at the end of his/her visit... kind of a "Down Under" version of our own Immigration and Nationality Act's section 214-B, the catch-all "guilty unless proven innocent" which U.S. tourist visa applicants and consulates worldwide must face on a daily basis. The logic of creating such a mechanism for an immigrant- attractive nation such as Australia makes sense. Canadians long- ago introduced several similar measures, which pre-screened visa applicants to assess credibility of their statements regarding the "temporariness" of their intended visit to the particular country.

Predictably, some groups took the opportunity to say that Australia was being "anti-Asian," a preposterous charge given that nation's historical immigration policy. In fact, one of the reasons that our law firm had limited success in the Hong Kong days preceding the People's Republic of China's reacquisition of that territory was due to the generous immigration policies that Australia gave Hong Kong Chinese. Australian Prime Minister John Howard called such allegations of Asian discrimination "ridiculous." Anyone with even a basic understanding of Australia's immigrant traditions would be quick to agree. The politics of selecting just who to include on the "high-risk list," however, will be tricky, both for Mr. Howard and for the entire Australian government; they will be walking a political fine line as they choose to determine exactly what nations should and should not be included as potential threats to the welfare of the Australian people. I remember my own reactions as the nationalities of the September 11 bombers were revealed in the American press, trying to understand how Saudi, Kuwaiti, and other young men from supposedly U.S.-friendly countries could have perpetrated the acts.

The truth is that the enemy is often in our own backyard, and ideologies are not necessarily geographically linked to the passports we carry. Some of the scariest people I have met in my life carry U.S. passports, and some of the most caring, compassionate souls in the world I have been blessed to meet hail from nations that are supposed "enemies." The need to classify and distinguish is an essential part of any nation's foreign policy, and it is unfortunate that we cannot inject our human wisdom to distinguish between nations and the people which make them up.

Australia's Department of Immigration is in a real bind: it turns out that some 700 plus would-be refugees from Afghanistan may actually be Pakistani. If so, this massive group of asylum- seeking migrants is most likely going to be deported back home.

The case is difficult from both a humanistic and legal standpoint and highlights a topic upon which I have frequently touched in the past: the religious, cultural, and ethnic realities which often drive people from their homes and which leads to this often tortuous business we call immigration.

The more the Australian immigration authorities look into it, the more it appears that the bulk number of supposedly-Afghani asylum applicants are actually Pakistani, and the visas issued providing temporary status in Australia are starting to be cancelled. According to, the cases are being re-examined because many of these folks are ethnic Hazara people. The Hazara people are a religious minority who are often persecuted for their religious beliefs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place.

The irony is this: their fraudulent applications lying about their nationality most likely (in my opinion, and based upon zero knowledge of Australian immigration law) are the key mechanism causing the triggering of the visa cancellations. But under the United Nations' concepts of refugee standards, religious oppression and persecution are grounds for seeking asylum in all civilized nations; whether they were being persecuted for their religious beliefs in Afghanistan or Pakistan, they might well indeed have valid claims.

Unlike the U.S. where persons seeking political asylum and who are otherwise not a threat to the public are allowed to remain free during the adjudication process, Australia's policy of detaining all asylum seekers (including women and children) means that applicants remain in government processing camps until the adjudication process is complete. According to CNN, there were over 1,200 persons in Australian detention camps as of May 2002, with about a quarter of them claiming to be from Afghanistan. Iraqis and Iranians made up another 20% of the detainee population, according to figures released by the Australian Department of Immigration. Another thousand are held in Australian-run camps on the tiny Pacific Island nation of Nauru and in Papua, New Guinea.

Tragically, it's a "Down Under" version of the same old story we see in our Florida shores: the downtrodden arriving en masse, seeking freedom and opportunity, much as our own American forefathers did in establishing the United States. In the article, the writer indicated that nearly 8,000 asylum seekers arrived on Australian beaches last year, dramatically dwarfing the numbers we see in Florida. As an island nation, Australia faces immigration challenges which very much parallel our own, but, at the same time, have dynamics peculiar to their own geographic reality.

According to a study recently commissioned by Australia's Department of Immigration, recent migrants to that nation are highly satisfied with life in their new country and have few complaints. recently published the study's findings. The study, conducted by Flinders University in South Australia, found that the vast majority of Australian migrants are happy about their decision to come to Australia and intend to stay permanantly in their new country. With an over 90% satisfaction rate, the results of the independent surveys did much to appease the government and Australia's public that recent restrictions and efforts to increase security in immigration regulations were causing dissatisfaction amongst recent migrants. Here are some of the highlights of what the survey found:

  • Approximately one-third of 11,500 immigrants surveyed could find no fault at all with Australia.

  • The single biggest complaint category - 12.5% - was the climate. (I bet the politicians loved to see that one... not a damn thing they could do about that, right? (-:)

  • Only 3% of the migrants complained about Australians being racists.

The study was captioned "The Settlement Experience of New Migrants". It was also illuminating as to the "whys" regarding the reasons for immigration to Australia. It seems that most immigrants come to Australia because of positive factors perceived there, as opposed to fleeing economic misery or difficulties in their own homeland. The most positive factors mentioned drawing them to Australia:

  • Lifestyle
  • Peaceful environment
  • Friendly people
  • Natural beauty of the countryside

According to CNN, some three-quarters of the migrants surveyed said that they would encourage others to move to Australia. I elected to do this comparative three-part series on Australia's immigration reality to give you folks some insight as to how another nation steeped with an immigrant tradition was dealing with its own positive and negative immigration issues today. As you know, my personal opinion is that our closest English-speaking neighbor (Canada) is also our most similar sibling as far as migratory issues. Australia, on the other hand, is on the other edge of the world and is dealing with a host of very different realities than we are in the United States. I believe that there is much we can learn from Australia's attitudes and ways of doing business, but to do so involves our willingness to let go of that ferociously "only- American" way of thinking. We need to be open-minded to looking at and learning how other countries have resolved issues similar to our own.

It always strikes me when politicians from other nations come to the United States. I've met a number of them over the years, and, generally speaking, they come here with open minds, eager to learn, to absorb, and to take back whatever they can for assimilation. That type of open-minded curiosity is rare among American politicians. One good example of an American politician who does genuinely listen (even though I disagree with him on a whole bunch of stuff) is our own Bill Nelson of Florida. When Nelson goes abroad, he comes back full of ideas, and he shares them in the Senate, although only on rare occasions is he able to really sway them to listen. It seems that most U.S. politicians go abroad on "fact finding" missions which translate more into "photo ops" and the like. The truth is that we often, at least on a subconscious level, think that we in America have it all pretty much figured out, and that there is not a whole lot that we can learn from these countries because we are simply the coolest.

The truth is, in a number of things, we are definitely the "baddest" and the "coolest." But in other areas, particularly in resolving and reworking global relationships, there are nations much more adept at the peacemaking and expansion process than we are. We may have the biggest guns, the largest ships, and the most advanced weaponry, but we certainly don't have the greatest diplomatic ability on this planet, at least at this stage in history.

There is much we can learn about how to improve our own immigration policies by watching folks such as the Australians, and I wish our government would.

Time to go put some shrimp on the barbie. (-;

About The Author

Jose Latour is the founding partner of Latour & Lleras, P.A., a Gainesville, Florida based business immigration practice working primarily with the IT industry and foreign investors. The above represents Mr. Latour's Editorial opinion. JELPA is an A/V rated firm whose web site,, is one of the Internet’s most visited immigration sites. The firm was named “ONE OF AMERICA’S TOP TEN INTERNET/VIRTUAL COMPANIES” in the 1999 Inc. Magazine and Cisco Systems “Growing with Technology Awards.” Mr. Latour served as a U.S. Diplomatic and Consular Officer in Mexico and Africa before entering private practice and today divides his time between his law practice, writing, flying, and his music.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.