Saturday, 27 July 2013

An Immigrant's Take On Australia's Immigration Policies

"What if I had arrived to this country by boat?" asks Bharat Ramakrishna, a fellow Indian immigrant to Australia. (He's way more Australian than I am, by the way - I still say "arrive in" and "chat with", not "arrive to" and "chat to").

Bharat's plea for greater compassion and understanding is impassioned and the piece is well-written, but I can't agree with him. My own journey to Australia was rocky and littered with initial disappointment, but although I was determined to make it in the end, I never once considered the option of taking a boat and just landing up. This doesn't mean I don't empathise with refugees fleeing brutal regimes to save their lives. I do empathise, and quite strongly at that (I'm a regular donor to Amnesty International and add my signature to many humanitarian campaigns). It only means that I think people like Bharat are unable or unwilling to acknowledge the phenomenon of economic migrants posing as refugees to take unfair advantage of an advanced society's humaneness. As an economic migrant myself, I believe I have some locus standi to speak about that.

My story

I was taken by the idea of migrating to Australia in the early nineties when I saw a few friends and colleagues leaving India. One of them explained Australian migration to me in very simple and evocative US-centric terms (since most people with my background were more familiar with the journey of the Indian migrant to the US): "It's like a green card that you get before you travel."

The information on the brochure available at the Australian consulate in Mumbai was quite clear about the criteria for skilled migrants. As an IT professional, I would need to demonstrate either a recognised IT-related degree plus 3 years of post-qualification work experience in IT, or 8 years of IT experience if I didn't have an IT degree (the latter was a lot more dicey in its chances of success). I also needed to demonstrate adequate English-language skills and be of a certain age (the younger I was, the more points I would score.)

While I was young (under 30) with fluent English, I fell between two stools on the qualification and experience criteria. I had graduated from IIT Madras (which is an institute recognised in Australia), but my degree was in Civil Engineering, not Computer Science. So that clearly did not qualify. I had completed (and stood 3rd in) a one-year Post-Graduate Diploma in Software Technology from the well-known (well known in Mumbai at least) NCST (now called C-DAC), but this was not a university degree. If that did not suffice, I also had an MBA from the reputed IIM Ahmedabad, where I had taken a few Information Systems electives related to management, such as Management Information Systems (MIS) and Decision Support Systems (DSS). Again, while the institute is a recognised one in Australia, a "Systems MBA" was not likely to cut it as an IT degree. Finally, I had 4 years of experience in IT, which was more than the 3 years required for IT degree holders but well short of the 8 years required of those without an IT degree.

I decided to take the chance and apply for permanent residency as a skilled migrant anyway, because I hoped the persons reviewing my application would see that while I fell short in some areas, I had made up for them in others.

Alas, when the response came less than a month later, I had been rejected. My first attempt at migrating to Australia thus came to a bitter end. This was in 1991.

And here is another interesting side story. When some of my friends learnt of my rejection, they offered a kind of "sour grapes" consolation: "Australia is a racist country. They want only white people." [This image of Australia persists in India to this day, and the student attacks of 2009-2010 have not helped.]

But that convenient explanation did not wash with me. I knew that I didn't quite qualify, and the assessor had pointed that out. I thought the assessor's comments were actually quite respectful and fair. The door had been shut (in my face, as my friends would have it), but I was also told how it could be opened again if I was really keen. I needed to somehow acquire an IT degree and put in the required 3 years of post-qualification work experience.

I was really keen. And so I applied for study leave, without pay, from my employer (CMC Ltd, whose alumni unanimously have fond memories of its warm and people-friendly culture) and went back to school. CMC's management was kind enough to give me a letter of sponsorship to enable me to enter IIT again (in its Kanpur campus this time) and do a masters degree in computer science. Three semesters later (and with my bank balance at zero), I had met Australia's first criterion. I had an IT-related degree from a recognised university. This was at the end of 1993, a little over two years since my rejection.

I rejoined CMC and stayed there another year. Then I got a job with a bank in Dubai and left India in early 1995. I was married by then. By 1997, after two years in Dubai, I had met Australia's second criterion. I had 3 years of post-qualification work experience in IT.

I applied a second time for permanent residency as a skilled migrant, with my wife as the secondary applicant (as a non-Australian chartered accountant, she may not have qualified on her own).

This time, our application was accepted.

It proved to me that Australia was a fair country where "what you see is what you get". The rules are clear and reasonable, and are applied impartially. [After 15 years in the country, my views have only been reinforced.]

So we finally got our much-coveted "green card" before we travelled to Australia. This was in early 1998. Our arrival here was with a valid resident visa and therefore completely kosher. No people smugglers were involved and no boat journey was required. The plane ride was comfortable and our adjustment very smooth (with initial help from old friends from India now settled in Sydney).

Best of all, I had the satisfaction that I had gone about the process the "right" way. As a bonus, I had a masters degree in computer science from an IIT, something to be proud of in its own right.

The Immigration Debate in Australia

Let's return to the issue of "boat people" raised by Bharat's article, which is extremely emotive in Australia today. Those who oppose the entry of boat people make several arguments. Some say boat people are "queue jumpers" who unfairly take places away from other refugees who follow the process and apply from refugee camps abroad. Some believe Australia's resources are stretched and the arrival of immigrants will put an increased burden on public systems. Yet others are suspicious of foreigners who may not be able to integrate into Australian society, going by the experience with some migrants who are already here. All of these points are valid to some degree, but these arguments are also decried by their opponents as racism and xenophobia.

On the other side of this debate are those like Bharat Ramakrishna who argue for a more humane Australia that welcomes asylum seekers and treats them well, instead of cruelly turning them away. Their opponents call them naive, bleeding-heart liberals.

Where do I stand in this debate? Being an economic migrant myself, I viscerally understand the motivations of one, and I can readily see how different I am from a refugee who is fleeing persecution. All talk about "boat people" and "asylum seekers" fails to distinguish between these two groups of people (refugees and economic migrants), and this failure makes any subsequent debate pointless. We really need to start from an understanding of the dichotomy between these two groups of asylum seekers.

The humanitarian argument should only apply to refugees. With economic migrants, the conversation ought to be more businesslike. These people are not in danger of their lives. Neither are they being persecuted. Yes, they probably aren't enjoying as high a quality of life in their countries as they would enjoy if they were living in Australia. It's understandable why they would like to migrate. But Australia is quite justified in asking these people what they can do for the country in return for a berth here. If they can't offer something Australia wants, there's no deal. Let's not get sentimental about it. There's nothing "cruel" about turning away economic migrants who don't have something useful to offer to Australia. Australia is, by any objective measure, the best country in the world to live in, not just one of the best. Out of the world's 7 billion people, I'm sure more than 6 billion would jump at the chance to live here, including many from the so-called First World. Obviously, it isn't possible to indulge them all.

And so the discussion has to turn to how we distinguish between genuine refugees and "mere" economic migrants. Remember that we wouldn't even be having this debate if economic migrants were honest enough not to hide their motives.

The root cause of the immigration problem is when economic migrants pretend to be refugees in order to tap into humanitarian sentiment, instead of taking their honest chances with a businesslike assessment of their suitability.

We cannot complain that our systems are not perfect, because individuals are not perfect. The other debate going on at this time in Australia is that of a "boot camp" for unemployed youth who want to receive unemployment assistance. Again, we wouldn't even be having this debate if people were honest enough to apply for assistance only when they were genuinely unemployed, and to notify the government as soon as they had secured alternative employment. Dole packages could be quite generous and easy to obtain if everyone was honest. But people are not, in general, honest. That's why social security is often seen as a heartless system. To keep out the dishonest, whether we're talking about immigration or unemployment assistance, systems must develop bureaucratic features that then inconvenience honest and deserving people.

Then there is the real issue of limited resources. There are 45 million genuine refugees in the world today, and even with the best of intentions, Australia and other advanced societies cannot accommodate them all. A massive influx of people (even deserving ones) can lead to the collapse of systems. This is worsened by undeserving people (economic migrants) abusing the system. This is why it is not possible to keep the gates open to all and remain blind to who is coming in. An open gate is a temptation to everyone to enter.

As a child growing up in India, I used to be greatly saddened by the sight of beggars at temples and other public places we visited. It can be quite heart-wrenching to see a baby carried by a child not much older, and the guilt can be quite intense when one is eating and these children appear before you, gesturing towards their mouths and stomachs. 

Be steel, my heart

It is not that these people are not poor, but they have also mastered the art of milking sentiment. Give a coin to a single beggar, and you will regret it instantly. You will be besieged by a throng of others, all with arms outstretched and pleading piteously. A few such incidents, and you will inure yourself to saying a stern no to every beggar you come across. It is not that one is cruel, but one learns to protect oneself. If beggars did not aggressively besiege kind-hearted tourists to the point of making them regret their kindness, I guarantee they would see a lot more charity overall.

Individuals are not only not perfect, they are also too smart for their own good.

Whether it's aggressive beggars in India, dole-bludgers in Australia or economic migrants posing as refugees, the issue is the same - cynical people who abuse a humane system, overwhelm limited resources and end up hardening the hearts of even the well-meaning and generous, thereby causing needless suffering and pain to the genuinely needy.

Sugar kept on a table attracts ants. It's a law of nature. So what do we normally do? We take the sugar off the table altogether. But then even those who need it often have to go without. We need a system that is less of a blunt instrument.

This is why I like the Rudd government's "PNG Solution", as I wrote before. It provides a means of distinguishing between genuine refugees and economic migrants. PNG (Papua New Guinea) is no paradise, but to genuine refugees, it's better than the alternative, so they will still come. But PNG is a turn-off to economic migrants, so if the scheme is executed without loopholes, they will almost certainly stop coming. Is it a perfect system? No it's not, because genuine refugees are going to be greatly inconvenienced, perhaps even endangered in a different way, by being resettled in PNG.

But as long as individuals are imperfect, no system can be perfect. Bharat Ramakrishna and others of his kind are obviously humane and warm individuals (and I can only wish for more of them in our society), but their prescription of undiscriminating welcome to all comers is unworkable.
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