An issue of numbers

She arrived in Tasmania 10 years ago.  She came here from China on a student visa to advance her education.  She attended school, then the University of Tasmania, and gained two degrees.  Throughout her study she gained part-time employment with a respected retail food outlet, and on completion of her degree she became a fulltime manager of that outlet.  She has applied for a permanent employer-sponsored visa, but the rules are strict.  To stay, there needs to be a proven demand for a skill, and “skill” is judged according to some predetermined code.  It would appear her occupation may not fit the code.  A matter of judgment.   And regarding her abilities in customer service, an essential attribute, but not a factor to be measured.   Now, ten years after, it appears we are going to send her back to China.

Such a story is not unique, it happens all the time.  The question is, should it?

We encourage overseas students to come to Australia to study.  Most schools and universities have specific programs designed to attract overseas students.  In fact Tasmanian institutions promote themselves to overseas parents as being a safe place to send their children.  And they come to study in increasing numbers.  Most students who come to these shores wish to go home at the end of their studies.  Some may wish to stay a short while, others, like the person mentioned above, seek an extended stay.

I am a supporter of enabling the extended stay, not only from altruism, but also for more prosaic reasons.  First and foremost, it enriches our culture.  Diversity is good, and makes us a more open society.  Further, a highly trained and experienced operative will add value to our community and to our economy.  A trusted and competent employee, it makes sense that such persons should be encouraged to contribute to our social and economic life.

Even more calculating maybe is the fact that she speaks Mandarin.  Australia’s economic future is inexorably bound with China, much of our offshore business dealings are with China, the future tourist influx will be from China, and yet our experience of and our knowledge of China is around about zip.  As an example, how many folk reading this article can say “yes”, “no”, “good morning” or count to ten in Mandarin.  I can’t.  We are abysmally ill-equipped to manage our future offshore commercial relationships.  And yet our future is dependent on maintaining good relations and forging strong links with China.

How helpful it would be if we had in our midst a number of people that could take a lead role in providing that link, even if it is by being a manager in a food outlet.  As such we should be a little smarter in our immigration laws, to allow for extended stays to those who wish to, and who can provide a necessary set of skills.

Which leads me to the vexed topic of asylum seekers.

People desperate to come here, away from an environment of war, repression or degradation, should be treated with respect.  Most come legally, by plane, and meld into the community.  A few come illegally, by boat, and are incarcerated.  The fact that the boat people have “jumped a queue” should indeed be a basis for a different style of processing, but it should not be a sufficient reason to place them in concentration camps.  Such camps are inhumane, and an appalling abuse of the most basic of human rights. 

Locking people up in isolated and off-shore detention centres until they are literally driven mad is not the hallmark of a humane and caring society.  Mandatory detention of kids is barbaric.  I know many of you share with me a revulsion at what we are doing to these people, even though there may not be a simple answer to stopping them from coming in the first place.

It is obvious that our porous borders are an inducement in themselves, but the longterm solution is to ensure the boats don’t leave Indonesia in the first place.  The resolution to that matter lies within the control and responsibility of our neighbor Indonesia, and it is a matter that must, has to, be resolved by them.  Australia must be insistent in this matter.

The numbers of boat people are small when compared to the plane arrivals, less than a football crowd on a Saturday afternoon at KGV watching Jason Akermanis.  They want to come, they have sufficient drive and desperation to get here, the least we can do is to treat them with some respect if and when they do arrive.

Both examples above are of people wanting to come here, and stay here.  Some do so legally, others not so.

In Tasmania, we are on the lookout for increasing our population.  Any realistic vision for the future of the State acknowledges a growing population.  Presently just over 500,000, our growth rate, like our economy, is lower than the national average.  We look to the mainland as a basis for attracting new people to come here.  As good as it seems, many that we attract are in fact looking to retire from the mainstream, and as such are not great contributors to the economic fabric of our State.  In fact as Jonathan West states, the majority of households in Tasmania are already dependent on a government payment, either salary or other benefit, and this is not a good basis for us to create wealth to pay for those payments.

And yet, here at our doorstep are a number of people who are keen to become a part of our community and their presence will contribute to our economy.  It presents a golden opportunity for us to show ourselves as caring and humane, while at the same time deriving a cultural and economic benefit.

Asylum seekers could be located here, provided with a bridging visa (ie a halfway house, or an “out on bail” visa), and allowed to have access to and interact with our community.  Many of them have relevant skills, some are highly trained, and with little effort could immediately begin to contribute to our way of life.  And the services they may require could be met from the enormous amounts of money the Commonwealth presently spends on isolating them in detention centres.

For all asylum seekers who stay, whether their arrival was legal or otherwise, eventual assimilation into society is the goal.  Supporting them through this period is of benefit.  Ignoring them, neglecting them, even brutalizing them, does little to assist this process.  

This issue will not go away.  In fact, the financial meltdown in Europe will before long create greater pressure on Australia to accept more immigrants.

I suspect many will baulk at such a suggestion.  I note our politicians treading warily over such a bed of nails.  Yet it could be a bed of roses.  Think about it for a moment – as a country and as a State we have been the beneficiaries of past waves of migration – managed correctly.

After all, nearly all of us originated from somewhere else originally.