In the past, many Iranians travelled to Australia via legal means, never to make the return journey. These people are now leaders in law, politics and science.
Perhaps if we restored these opportunities to reach our shores, however remote, Iranians would be less inclined to travel here via boats, argue Mary Crock and Daniel Ghezelbash.
Hysteria surrounding the arrival of boats carrying asylum seekers is a familiar phenomenon in Australia – especially around election time.
One of the favourite strategies used by politicians to make refugees disappear are pronouncements that asylum seekers are not refugees but economic migrants. In 1989, refugees fleeing post-genocidal violence in Cambodia were denounced by then foreign minister Gareth Evans as “economic refugees”. “Bob is not your uncle on this issue,” decreed then prime minister Bob Hawke.
Now, while attention is focused on Labor’s risky new Regional Resettlement Arrangement with PNG, Foreign Minister Bob Carr has been deploying the same rhetorical tactics – first on the Tamils and most recently on Iranians who are presenting in unprecedented numbers among the boat arrivals.
As in years past, the political pronouncements have been accompanied by policy and “country information” directions aimed at encouraging decision makers to reject the protection claims made by asylum seekers from those countries.
Bob is not your uncle on this issue,” decreed prime minister Bob Hawke about refugees fleeing post-genocidal violence in Cambodia in 1989.
It is disingenuous of the Foreign Minster to be making any statements about the current maritime asylum seekers from Iran. He is well aware that refugee status must be determined on a case-by-case basis. He also knows that economic status does not influence eligibility for refugee status. Both the rich and the poor can be persecuted. He is also aware that people from majority ethnic groups can suffer persecution just as surely as those from minority groups. It is a defining feature of the 1951 Convention that refugee status extends to political and other dissidents.
With a de facto freeze on the determination of any of the asylum claims lodged between 12 August 2012 and early July of this year, the truth is that the international legal status of the 8,000+ Iranian asylum seekers now in Australia remains to be determined.
What we do know is that many Iranians are doing it tough. There is no doubt that the international sanctions have had a devastating impact on the Iranian economy, an impact which has been magnified by a dysfunctional and corrupt government.
Overlaying these economic problems, political, religious and gender persecution remain rife. As well as the chronic religious bigotry, sexism and the petty bullying of the religious police, incidences of persecution within Iran have risen with the political pressure of general elections.
Without individual determinations, it is impossible to know what proportion of the current cohort of arrivals are fleeing economic hardship as opposed to persecution. It is hard to believe, however, that Iranians would be willing to risk their lives on a leaky boat for purely economic reasons. Experience suggests that while the lack of economic opportunity may act as a “push factor”, most asylum seekers leave in response to specific precipitating incidents of persecution.
The Iranian regime poses particular challenges to Australian ideals of border control. Corruption is so endemic that (we have been told) it is cheaper to engage a people smuggler to get out of the country than it is to bribe the long list of officials necessary to access the Australian embassy so as to lodge an application for a visa through “official” channels.
Iranians have been fleeing their homeland for decades. What has changed are the barriers erected at this end to prevent their admission through regular programs.
Even if an Iranian is granted access to the embassy, their chances of being granted a visa to travel to Australia are slim to none. As Iranians are deemed to be at high risk of overstaying their visas and/or applying for asylum upon their arrival in Australia, visas for temporary travel (whether for business or leisure) are very difficult to obtain. Permanent visas are even harder to obtain, with difficulties relating to the recognition of Iranian educational qualifications and professional certification severely restricting access to the skilled migration visa streams.
Government controls placed on departure from Iran can also militate against Iranians using “regular” channels to leave their country. These border controls are also Australia’s problem: once an Iranian has left the country without seeking the requisite permissions, the Iranian government refuses to accept them back. Put another way, the Foreign Minister’s attempts to deny the Iranian asylum seekers the legal status of refugee may well be futile if there is no way of returning the failed asylum seekers to Iran.
The complexities of this situation are not new. Iranians have been fleeing their homeland for decades. What has changed are the barriers erected at this end to prevent their admission through regular programs.
Between 1994 and 2000, Australia admitted a large number of Iranian postgraduate students and their dependents. Virtually none returned home, but few would complain of the contribution these people have since made to Australia. Contrary to common preconceptions, Iran’s education system has been world class – notably in the maths and sciences. Australians of Iranian heritage now work as leaders in law, politics, science and the arts.
Australia also admitted a sizable number of Iranians through a short-lived work and holiday program negotiated in 2003. Under the program, Iranians between the ages of 18-30 could travel and work in Australia for a period of up to one year. Again, few Iranians who entered under the program returned home, with many applying for and being granted protection visas after their arrival.
While this clearly violated the express purpose of the work and holiday visa program, it provided a legal (and safer) alternative for young Iranians who may have otherwise engaged the services of people smugglers. Many came to Australia in circumstances that would absolutely have qualified them as refugees, bearing Farsi names that translate as “lover of freedom”. They did not need to come on boats because the programs were there to facilitate their lawful entry.
Here’s a radical suggestion: perhaps we can learn from the past and revisit the barriers that we have erected to lawful Iranian migration. We are not advocating for the admission of every Iranian who wishes to travel to Australia. Rather, we argue that the possibility of legal entry, no matter how remote, may dissuade people considering making the dangerous journey to Australia by boat.
Would this not be a more humane and constructive alternative to the cruelty of Labor’s new policies?
Mary Crock is Professor of Public Law at the University of Sydney. View her full profile here. Daniel Ghezelbash is a doctoral student and adjunct lecturer at the University of Sydney. View his full profile here.