If you've ever wondered why the rest of the world thinks Australians can sometimes be a bit racist, then the past week could probably give you a clue. The Shadow Immigration Minister said he wanted a register of where asylum seekers live so that their neighbours can be alerted; then the Prime Minister said she wanted ‘foreigners’ at the back of the jobs queue; and then Tony Abbott said he'd never say anything bad about foreigners and accused Labor of demonising them.
You can be forgiven for getting confused at this point. Isn't it Labor that's supposed to be the bleeding heart lefties who love refugees and migrants? And isn't it the Liberal Party that loves turning back the boats and sucking up to racists and xenophobic bigots?
In all the confusion there is good news: the country is not being invaded by foreigners, your job is safe and if you were concerned about the cute Irish girl on a 457 visa who works at the cafe up the road, she is going to be just fine. Because all of this is simply clever spin. Here's some context:
First, asylum seekers. There are two categories of asylum seeker – those who actually do need asylum (refugees) and those who are trying to 'jump the queue' to migration. Last year, around [7,000 people arrived in Australia by boat, and around 7,000 asylum seekers arrived by plane](http:// www.immi.gov.au/media/publications/statistics/asylum/_files/asylum-trends-aus-annual-2011-12.pdf). Of those who arrived by boat, around 70% were genuine refugees. Of those who arrived by plane, it was closer to 30%. Of the 7,000 people who arrived by plane, about half were on student visas, and a third were on holiday visas. Most came from India and China, most were men and most were sent home. Those who arrived by boat mostly came from Afghanistan, Iraq and Sri Lanka, again they were mostly men and most were granted asylum. Overall, about 6,000 of the people who applied were able to stay in Australia as refugees.
It seems like a fair few. But how does Australia compare to the rest of the world? Well, right now there are more than 200,000 Syrian asylum seekers in Jordan waiting to be processed. All up there are more than a million people from Syria alone who are homeless, and more than half of them are kids. Mauritania, a country with a population of 3.5 million people with an unemployment rate of more than 30%, has seen 55,000 arrivals from war-torn Mali in the past few weeks. That's 5,000 more than the total number of asylum seekers who have arrived in Australia by boat since 1976. In fact, if you add up everyone claiming asylum in every industrialised country in the world, the number is still lower than the number of people who live in the Dadaab refugee camp in Northern Kenya, where 425,000 people live, sometimes for decades. More than half of them are children.
Another way 'foreigners' can come and 'take our jobs' is through 457 visas. The way it's been reported, you'd assume they're all coming from India, and it's true that many are. However, there are more people in Australia on 457 visas from Europe and the US than there are from Asian countries like India, China and the Philippines. Almost 30% of people on 457 visas are from the UK and Ireland. To be fair on them, last year there were more Australians applying to work in the UK (14,740) than there were UK citizens applying for 457 visas (13,690).
In terms of these scary foreigners taking our jobs, it's worth remembering that Australia's unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the world – it's lower than the US, Canada, New Zealand and every European country apart from Switzerland. Our 66,650 temporary work visa applications are insignificant compared to a country like Spain, where close to a million immigrants arrived looking for work in one year, in a country with an unemployment rate of 25%.
The facts show that there is absolutely no reason to fear foreigners. So why do both political parties insist on telling us there's a problem?
Just before the last election campaign started in 2010, Labor announced the mining tax. In theory, it should have been popular – after all, it was about taking money from super rich multinational companies that have been ripping us off for years, and spending all that extra money on regular people. Yet the government underestimated what can happen when you take on rich, powerful people – you're likely to lose. And they did. The tax was rewritten so that in the end the mining companies ended up paying a fraction of what they should have, and we all missed out.
The 2013 election campaign started last week, and Labor has learned its lesson. You don't pick on people with money, because they will destroy you. You pick on people who have no money and don't vote.
Labor also learnt a lesson from the mining companies that the best way to get Australians worked up is through fear. When people are scared they're more inclined to want to retreat back to what they know. John Howard knew this very well – he managed to convince voters in places hours from the coast that they'd have boat people arriving on their doorstep if they voted for Labor. Now Labor is using the same tricks.
You might remember that most of the news over the past few weeks was about how the Labor Party is imploding. Will Kevin Rudd challenge Julia Gillard? Has Julia Gillard lost control of her own party? What about Eddie Obeid and all that corruption? Julia Gillard knows that it takes just one mention of a foreign invasion, and all that mess is forgotten. Panic very quickly descends on quiet suburbs in Sydney and Melbourne. What Julia Gillard hopes is that by appealing to their sense of fear voters will see her as on their side, whereas Tony Abbott is inexperienced and can't be trusted. Does she really believe foreigners are taking Australian jobs? No, she doesn't. When she was asked to give an example of a foreigner taking a job from an Australian, she couldn't come up with one. Joe Hockey helped her out, identifying her Chief Spin Master, who is Scottish and on a 457 visa. Given the negative media coverage she's been getting, perhaps she would be better off sending him to the back of the queue.