Two steps back: Australia’s immigration debate reaches new lows
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Two steps back: Australia’s immigration debate reaches new lows

SPEAKING to the country’s most vocal conservative commentator Andrew Bolt, Australia’s controversial Immigration Minister Peter Dutton declared that the second and third generations of migrants to Australia were becoming “foreign fighters” despite their families’ hard work.

With Bolt having questioned the minister about his intention to “throw out” Sudanese refugees who commit crimes “back to Africa”, Dutton directed the conversation to claim, “the reality is that Malcolm Fraser did make mistakes in bringing some people in, in the 1970s.” Fraser was then the Prime Minister as Australia transitioned from its racist ‘White Australia’ immigration policy to one of multiculturalism, accepting hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese and Lebanese refugees.

The targeting of Australia’s Lebanese Muslim community understandably drew widespread outrage and criticism, with the Greens party and Lebanese Muslim Association outwardly labelling Dutton’s statement racist. The federal Opposition Leader, Bill Shorten of the Labor Party, labeled the comments “loud, lazy, disrespectful, wholesale labelling of entire communities for the actions of a tiny minority.”

Attacked by opposition members of Parliament for his rhetoric, Dutton later told Australia’s House of Representatives that 22 of the last 33 people charged with terrorism-related offences had been committed by the children and grandchildren of Lebanese Muslim migrants. Amidst the backlash, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull defended Dutton as doing an “outstanding job.”


Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (R) and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton speak to officials during a tour of the Australian Maritime Border Command Centre in Canberra, Nov 13, 2016. Pic: AAP/Lukas Coch/via Reuters

Ian Macphee, who was Immigration Minister for Dutton’s own Liberal Party during the 1970s, slammed the current minister’s comments as “ignorant”, “alarmist” and “outrageous.” In a statement, Macphee asserted that “The Fraser government honoured international law and morality. From the Howard government onwards these have been increasingly discarded.”

Prominent Australians of Lebanese Muslim background also spoke out against Dutton, with professional boxer Billy Dib asking “are my world titles for Australia also mistakes?” Beshara Taouk, recipient of Australia’s highest honour – a Medal of the Order of Australia – stated that the Lebanese community considers Australia “the holy land” and requested that Dutton apologise.

Counter-terrorism expert Jacinta Carroll wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald that “the figure of 22 represents less than 0.01 per cent of the about 180,000 Australians of Lebanese background, according to the [Australian Bureau of Statistics].” Stating Dutton’s comments were unhelpful, she noted that “fortunately in Australia to date the numbers of supporters of Islamist extremism and terrorism are very low; so low, in fact, they’re categorised as cases and clusters rather than being statistically useful.”

Netizens also voiced their outrage and confusion at Dutton’s comments, with Josh Butler of Huffington Post tweeting: “1 in 3600 Lebanese Muslim Australians on terror charges; 1 in 20 Catholic priests on child sex charges”. Meanwhile, UN special rapporteur for migrant rights, François Crépeau, noted that Australia’s refugee policies had promoted xenophobia despite a rich immigration history.

Yet Peter Dutton has continued to steadfastly defend his comments, claiming that “I have been factual in what I said and I want to make sure that we have the best possible country.”

Dutton’s incendiary rhetoric came on the back of an unprecedented legislative move to ‘ban’ any person seeking asylum by boat from ever entering Australia again – a policy proposal that has drawn further criticism from the UN. Meanwhile, the Australian immigration department has admitted an asylum seeker it has detained for almost five years had evidence against his case for refugee status obtained by torture in a mass show trial in Egypt. Indeed, the United Nations as well as medical and legal experts have also accused Australia’s offshore detention regime itself of facilitating torture.

SEE ALSO: Australia looks to block asylum seekers from entering the country under new law

Another major development in Australia’s policy has drawn mixed responses from civil society and, interestingly, Republican lawmakers in America.  After years of heavy criticism from the United Nations, human rights groups and the Australian public for its use of offshore processing, Australia has agreed upon a deal with the US to resettle its refugees from immigration detention centers there. This has been criticised as merely a government-endorsed form of human trafficking.

Australia’s policies on asylum seekers since 2001 have trashed its international reputation and credibility to criticise rights abuses in its region. The closure of Manus Island and Nauru is a positive development towards reinstating the rights of people seeking asylum, despite the cynicism of  a ‘deal’ to transfer them to the United States.

But offensive rhetoric from senior government ministers and a proposed world-first ban on refugees show Australia is moving in the wrong direction if it wants to be considered, as PM Malcolm Turnbull claims, the “most successful and harmonious multicultural nation in the world.”


** This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of Asian Correspondent