Australia, like many other countries, has turned in on itself during the pandemic. One element of this tendency is the way we have treated foreigners unfortunate enough to be trapped in our midst through no fault of their own - on working holidays, travelling, and even long-term resident non-citizens, as well as migrants, refugees and international students.
More than 10 per cent of the Australian population is in this situation. The 3 million people includes 2.2 million on temporary visas (many of them long-term), more than 200,000 tourists and about 120,000 on working holiday visas (known as backpacker visas). About 670,000 of the temporary visa-holders are New Zealanders on a specific visa. There are also about 37,000 refugees and asylum seekers on bridging visas, and up to 400,000 international students in a normal year.
During both World War I and World War II, non-combatant foreigners received harsh treatment. Most of them, businessmen and travellers as well as alien residents, were placed in internment camps under spartan conditions, some for the duration of the war. This included many whose only crime was being of foreign ancestry, including German, Italian or Japanese heritage. Our concern for our own security in wartime took precedence over broader values, such as compassion and the common dignity of the human person.
These negative attitudes never entirely disappear in normal peacetime circumstances. The inhumanity of our harsh treatment of refugees and asylum seekers may be moot in some circles, but our treatment of some long-term residents not technically citizens, when they break the law, is more widely condemned. We expel them even when they arrived in Australia as young children. Our New Zealand cousins, represented by their Prime Minister, have passionately objected to our uncompromising stance.
Australian policies towards many foreigners have lacked not only sufficient compassion but also recognition of our longer-term self-interest.
There are several categories of foreigner in the grip of Australian authorities.
The first has been those foreigners on large cruise ships in Australian waters. The initial focus was on the travellers themselves, often relatively well-off and predominantly elderly tourists. Then, once they had been attended to humanely but sternly through eventual repatriation by air, attention turned to the thousands of foreign crew members who remained.
Our prime concern naturally has been the health of our own citizens on land, initially directly through preventing person-to-person community transmission of the virus and indirectly through ensuring the capacity of our hospitals to treat our own citizens. This arm's-length policy had the support of the Australian people, even though many Australians were trapped on cruise ships in very similar circumstances around the globe. We seemed not to connect the two situations.
Underlying this approach is a division of human beings into two categories, citizens and non-citizens, rather than recognition of their common humanity. Our instinct is to pull up the drawbridge.
Our treatment of the cruise ship workforce has been to wish them out of sight and mind. Though we have pledged to look after their health needs in extremis, some developments such as the forced removal of the now-notorious cruise ship, the Ruby Princess, from Sydney to Port Kembla sends a different signal. The complication is that the 1000 crew members are from more than 50 countries. Furthermore, while some will be middle-class professionals, including highly paid ship's officers, the majority are of a lower rank with very little voice of their own or capacity to attract the support of their home countries.
The second category is those foreigners temporarily in Australia, either young backpackers here for one or two years or somewhat older temporary workers. The former group has received most attention and notoriety, but the number of older people is also very large.
Our treatment of this category is to urge them to leave ASAP, even when that is extremely difficult for logistical and/or financial reasons, as Australians in similar situations around the world have found. We are washing our hands of them. We are refusing them access to JobKeeper or JobSeeker benefits, throwing them back on their own often meagre resources.
However, the nation's interest in snapping back from economic hibernation indicates that the long-term participation of foreigners in the Australian economy is absolutely necessary. Only in the case of the urgent needs of primary industries for foreign fruit and vegetable-pickers is a second thought given to the long-term consequences of our stance.
The third category is those non-citizens who have effectively settled in Australia with a view to making their lives here permanently, many aiming eventually becoming citizens.
Many of these have access to Centrelink or JobKeeper support as they are in full-time work, but those who are casual workers have been put in the no-support boat.
The fourth category includes foreign university students and a smaller number of asylum seekers on bridging visas. They have been hit hard too, thrown on the support of community groups or their own devices. In the case of students it is unreasonable to think they should have planned for such unpredictable circumstances.
Overall Australian policies towards many foreigners have lacked not only sufficient compassion but also recognition of our longer-term self-interest. We should think more creatively and be more generous.
If nations around the world, including Australia, had paused to collaborate, they would have negotiated reciprocal arrangements whereby foreigners could be looked after where they are living, working, or studying in return not just for equivalent treatment of their own citizens elsewhere, but also a financial contribution to their support from the foreign nation concerned - whether it be by governments or private companies.
Retreat into self-centred nationalism has been too common. It inflicts unnecessary harm on human beings who share a common humanity greater than mere citizenship.
- John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.