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Business and Refugees

Notes for a talk at the Employers' Reception during Austcare Refugee Week 2002 Reception Room, City of Fremantle 9th October 2002

Mark Raper SJ AM

"What's good for Coca Cola is good for America". Perhaps we would not say it so crassly, but I am sure many of us would agree that if something is good for business, if it helps our economy, it should also be good for our country. My contention is that we need in Australia an asylum and migration policy that is both good for business and good for Australia. We need an asylum policy that serves our national interest. For the good of our country we want to see an asylum policy that is fair, cost effective, humane, and based on a well thought out rationale.

We want to be able to hold our heads up when doing business with our neighbours, we want our respect for other cultures to be known to be genuine. Australia's treatment of foreigners, especially those who come to our shores seeking safety, should help not hinder us in our dealings with our neighbours. Our policies should present Australia as a good global citizen. Nor should they be excessively expensive.

Was the "White Australia" policy in Australia's national interest? Was it good for business? Was apartheid good for South African business? In the long term, no.

"White Australia" (officially it was known as the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 - brought in by the first sitting of Parliament after Federation) is a "brand" name, one so successful that Coca Cola would kill for it. Measures taken during the 60s spelt the end of it, and although it was finally put to death in 1973, the 'White Australia' label still clings to the Australian identity in the minds of some. When a fish and chip proprietor from Queensland won acclaim for espousing a racist platform, she was widely reported abroad, instantly pinning back on Australia its old label.

When Pauline Hanson was active, business leaders spoke strongly against her policies. But since her platform has been coopted by the Liberal Government, business is silent. Hansen was a rogue individual, but now the Prime Minister, and the Leader of the Opposition effectively espouse her causes, and in doing so, they effectively abdicate their leadership roles.

Why has none of the top 10 CEOs spoken on this? Does business now agree with her policies? Or does business now think these are irrelevant? Or does business not want to be involved in politics? Of course this is absurd. Either business is simply not interested, or it is in fact supportive of the government's position, for it to be so silent.

Many professions have associated themselves with the search by Australians to have a just and workable refugee policy. There are groups called 'doctors for refugees', 'actors for refugees', 'lawyers for refugees', 'artists for refugees', there is a concert coming up by 'musos for refugees'. But business is surprisingly quiet. I have not yet heard of 'business for refugees', even though it is business that stands to gain most from fairer refugee policies.

Recently arrived migrants and refugees are the most energetic and motivated workers; just multi-racial policies help us appear attractive to our neighbours; people with knowledge of cultures and languages skills in our community help Australian business to secure international markets and contracts; new and young workers entering our labour force enable the Australian economy to maintain its pension and other social security schemes.

Perhaps it is not reasonable to expect business to be concerned with the lack of compassion in the Australian policy. At the very least, cannot business show concern for the budget implications? Business is normally interested in the bottom line. Well, check the last Federal Budget. See the huge cost of navy, the huge cost of the Pacific mis-adventure (cheque book diplomacy). Border protection was this year increased by $1.2 billion to $2.8 billion (1). At the same time the first cuts were to welfare and pharmaceutical benefits.

Let us get things into proportion. How many people are we talking about? Since 1989 until July this year, that is in 13 years, 13,475 people have arrived in Australia by boat, ie about 1,000 a year (2). Now Australia has signed on to an international agreement under which people have the right to seek asylum here, and if their claim is substantiated, our government has agreed to give them that asylum. Australian officials are have a good record throughout the world for their processing procedures. And of the Iraqi and Afghan people who have arrived here by boat over the past 3 years, 95% have been accepted as qualifying for refugee status. Yet of all these 13,475 who have reached Australia by boat, so far only 348 have been granted the right to permanent visas. About 8,000 have temporary 'punishment' visas and may be removed.

At the same time, of the hundreds of thousands of people who enter here each year by plane, around 8,000 overstay. Altogether now there are currently over 60,000 of these illegal overstayers who arrived by plane and who live in the community. Of those who seek asylum from this group, only 20% are accepted as refugees. That is to say, of the two thirds of the people who are here 'illegally', and came by plane, 20% make it as refugees and can stay with a permanent visa in the community. Whereas of the one third who come 'illegally' but by boat, most - over 90% - are classed as refugees, are put in detention and after a long period of punishment are released on punishing visa conditions. For some reason "illegal plane people" was not as marketable during the election as the irrational fear evoked by a "boat people" invasion.

Australia has absorbed far greater numbers of people in distress, even in our recent past. Bob Hawke wept at Tien An Minh Square and 40,000 students were accepted on the spot. And those 40,000 each brought at the very least two relatives through family reunion. Why is there such a furore about a few thousand people coming by boat to seek safety here? It is a challenge, I acknowledge. But it is more properly considered simply as a management challenge.

Is there a diminishing sense of values in business? If so, it is important for business to be vigilant. Business now appears to have an ever narrowing view of its responsibilities and accountabilities. It used to have 5 sets of stakeholders: Shareholders, Customers, Employees, Suppliers, and the Community at large. Now is it true that business is only for the shareholders? Ethically responsible businesses have introduced the concept of the triple bottom line audit: 1. The conventional financial bottom line; 2. Social and environmental audit; 2. Human Rights protocol audit.

For this government, all that matters is the economy, and within that, the private sector. All the more argument that business and business leaders cannot abdicate their responsibility. If they support the government, so be it. But if they do not, let us hear from them.

We are meeting in the City of Fremantle, one of many municipalities around Australia whose City Council has declared it a "Refugee Welcome Zone". The purpose of the Refugee Welcome Zones, which is an initiative of the Refugee Council of Australia, is to enable councils to declare that they welcome refugees into their area, to celebrate the diversity in their midst and to acknowledge the importance of upholding human rights of refugees who have been forced from their original homes by persecution.

Fremantle is an Australian icon of welcome, the place of first landing for countless new Australians, and still one of the most culturally diverse, yet deeply Australian cities. Thank you for hosting this evening at which we honour the contribution of refugees to Australia's economic well-being.


(1) See the Press Release of the Refugee Council of Australia on the Federal Budget for 2002-2003, May 2002 at www.refugeecouncil.org.au

(2) See DIMIA Fact Sheet #74a, www.immi.gov.au (see table below)

Total Unauthorised Boat Arrivals 13 475
Removed 3524
Still in Detention 705
Granted TPV 7957
Granted PPV 348
Granted BE 43
Other 9
Escaped 26
Last updated 1 July 2002

From DIMIA Fact Sheet #74a, www.immi.gov.au