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
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
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
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
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
|Still in Detention
Last updated 1 July
From DIMIA Fact Sheet #74a, www.immi.gov.au