There are clear signs that policy circles now consider migration to be an emerging security issue. For the first time this year’s Shangri-la Dialogue had a session on migration, during which Chinese and Indonesian delegations presented their respective policies on the security challenges of irregular migration. The 2016 Asia-Pacific Security Assessment includes a chapter on the migration-security nexus. These developments reflect a trend across the region to view migration as a security issue that encompasses both border and human security.
The first, second and third parts of this series examined the political and economic security forces powering migration flows across Asia and into Australia. This post examines four myths about migrants common in host countries.
The 2016 Lowy Poll suggests that 73% of those surveyed think immigration has a positive impact on Australia’s economy, yet 40% believe the current levels of immigration is too high and a burden on Australia’s social welfare system. In addition, 35% think immigrants are taking away jobs from Australians. These partly contradictory views reflect the mixed feelings Australians have about migration, and help to explain why myths that are not based on facts have proved remarkably persistent.
Myth #1: Migrants are terrorists
The biggest concern about migrants from a national security perspective is generally perceived to be migrants’ potential connection to terrorist groups such as Islamic State. Terror suspects entering the country are closely monitored by security and intelligence agencies.
More worrying at a societal level, however, is public antagonism against certain ethnic or religious groups of migrants which can fan existing prejudice against immigrant communities in host countries. This creates community security problems and breaks social cohesion in host countries.
It is certainly true that migrants are sometimes targeted by terrorist groups, whose members may include citizens of the host countries, and which are constantly on the hunt for new recruits. Islamic State recruiters are known to reach out to isolated and marginalised individuals, using social media to make personal and emotional approaches. In recent years, the group is believed to have been actively recruiting fighters and families from wider Asia, including Rohingya in Malaysia, Uighurs in Xinjiang, Tajik migrants in Russia, and even migrant Indonesian domestic workers in Hong Kong.
While it is true we need to be vigilant about terrorist suspects, they can be home-grown as well as foreign and the majority of migrants help to grow the economy, not threaten national security.
Myth #2: Immigrants are criminals
Statistics do not show any consistent patterns in the relation between crime rates and immigrants. Other factors — including unemployment, education, socio-economic disadvantages and lack of access to social services — have more bearing than ethnicity on crime rates. In the US, the incarceration rate for foreign-born adults is much lower than native-born adults, while in some British cities that have had influx of asylum seekers from the late 1990s onwards, property crime rates have been found to be significantly lower than other areas. In Australia, prison population statistics suggest those born overseas are less likely to commit a crime than those born in Australia. As of 30 June 2015, just over two thirds (67%) of the Australian population aged 17 and over was Australian-born and this group accounted for 81% of the prison population. The one third (33%) of Australians born overseas accounted for the remaining 18% of prisoners.
Myth #3: Migrants are taking local jobs
Australia’s point-based permanent migration program is admired by many developed countries. It is run on the basis of a skills list that is regularly updated to reflect business and research needs. Migrant workers fill the gaps in either advanced job sectors, where the Australian-born population does not have the required skills or qualifications, or in industries in which locals do not want to work.
Whether skilled streams accurately reflect local demands still needs further research and investigation. It seems likely that young Australians without post-school credentials do have difficulty finding low skilled entry-level jobs in industries such as hospitality, retail, accommodation and food services. Employment growth in these sectors has slowed, and some businesses are contracting. Meanwhile, there are one million temporary residents — students, working-holiday makers or temporary employees — competing for low-skill work.
While this myth may have some basis in fact, instead of blaming migrants we should invest more in vocational training and look to ease access to funding for start-up businesses, particularly for young Australians. Moreover, the fact that migrants help create a more competitive job market should be viewed as a positive for national development.
Myth #4: Migrants create health hazards
There is always a potential risk that visitors may carry illicit items or spread diseases that can pose threats to the hosting country’s food, health and environmental security. In the UK, fears that migrants who had stowed away in lorries had contaminated fresh food coming from Calais in France led to food worth £10 million being thrown away.
The World Health Organization (WHO), however, has found no systemic association between migration and infectious diseases. Most migrants are healthy but undocumented migrants may pose threats to public health as they are not monitored and therefore not in reach of relevant health authorities.
The Australian Department of Health conducts regular surveillance of communicable diseases and especially tuberculosis infection among refugee children in detention centres. The Centre for Research in Immunisation has identified the lack of systematic mechanism for catch-up immunisation for migrants and refugees in Australia as a potential health hazard.
More worrying, however, are the personal health and community securities in Australia’s offshore detention centres. Parliamentary inquiries have found that the current policy places traumatised asylum seekers in cramped spaces with poor hygiene that lack access to adequate medical treatments. Caseworkers report children constantly banging their heads against walls in frustration. Dozens of people have sewn their lips together. Rape victims refuse food for weeks. Lack of access to justice, basic education and healthcare as well as local intimidation are seeding a long-term generational trap in poverty and underdevelopment in Australia’s immediate neighbours including Papua New Guinea and Nauru. Unless conditions in offshore detention centres improve, Australia’s future generations might have to bear the costs for today’s mismanagement of migration and human security.
While the general public's views about migrants are not always scientifically based, these concerns are real and relevant to every day life. The impact of potential connection to terrorism on communal safety, together with perceived threats to both economic/job security and health and environmental security, go way beyond state-centric national security,