Hewson's view: Border security driven mostly by politics

Stand-off: Hundreds of migrants from Central America gather with supporters at the border wall with the US, where it ends at the Pacific Ocean, in Tijuana, Mexico. President Trump is demanding Congress approve funding for a new wall right along the border. Picture: Meghan Dhaliwal
Stand-off: Hundreds of migrants from Central America gather with supporters at the border wall with the US, where it ends at the Pacific Ocean, in Tijuana, Mexico. President Trump is demanding Congress approve funding for a new wall right along the border. Picture: Meghan Dhaliwal

So much of politics and government today is being dominated by the inter-related issues of border security, immigration, and refugees. These are very emotive and divisive issues. They have contributed to a significant upheaval in the structures of many governments, certainly across Europe, and in the US, as well as playing out, but to a lesser extent, here in Australia.

The flood of refugees from Syria, Iraq and North Africa into Europe in recent years has precipitated a significant shift in power structures in most European elections, but most visibly in the UK, around the BREXIT vote and subsequent election, and in Germany with the demise of Merkel and her government. Hard-line “right” extremists, dominated by an anti-immigration/refugee sentiment, have gained considerable influence in most European countries.

There is a very real danger that Europe could “fragment” on these issues, as a manifestation of a more general anti-Europe/anti-globalisation sentiment, with some very strong movements also emerging in Hungary and other central European nations, and even in Italy.

More broadly, there are some 65 million displaced persons in the world seeking a new home and a better life for themselves and their families, at the same time as so many countries are seeking to “close” or “secure” their borders by restricting immigration and their refugee intake. It is a massive global challenge in a world where governments have no collective answer, and most responses are political.

This week we saw the shutdown of the US government continue for now a record period, as Trump continued to go toe-to-toe over border security, against the newly emboldened Democrats, now that they have established control of the lower house of Congress.

Trump has condensed most of his racist campaign rhetoric to his “promise” to build a wall along the US/Mexican border, and although his commitment was also to get the Mexicans to pay for it, his fight is now over Congress’s refusal to pick up the tab, given that the Mexicans have refused.

Trump says he is prepared to keep the US government “closed”, even if it takes years for Congress to agree. This week, with his back against “his wall”, Trump attempted to appeal to the “American people”, beyond the Congress, by making his first Oval Office address to the nation.

It was a farce. For a man with no demonstrated heart or soul, Trump claimed the wall issue was a “humanitarian crisis – a crisis of the heart and a crisis for the soul”.  It is a “choice between right and wrong, justice and injustice”. No!  It was simply Trump hoping to create “fear” and anxiety about border security.

Not surprisingly, the facts don’t support his argument. By any measure there is no “crisis” at the border. Apprehensions at the border peaked in 2000 at 1.6 million; they were 303,916 in 2017, the lowest in 45 years, although they did increase by some 90,000 in 2018, but still historically low.

Moreover, the data doesn’t support his arguments that the US is being flooded with drugs, drug runners, thugs and terrorists in these border crossings. Drugs mostly enter the US through legal ports of entry; the State Department says there is “no credible evidence” to support the claimed flood of terrorists; repeated studies say migrants are substantially less likely to commit those “grisly crimes” he described than native-born Americans; and so on.

Since the Howard government saved its electoral skin by exploiting the Tampa, border security has been a significant electoral issue here in Australia – “stopping the boats”, offshore processing, refugees still stuck in offshore detention, “optimal immigration”, sometimes with a particularly unsavoury “race element”.

However, while to some countries such as the UK and US we are seen as having developed a “workable response”, there is a lot of politics, and significant weaknesses and anomalies, in our system.

Clearly, if you are an “au pair” for a mate of the Minister you may get “special treatment”. It will also disturb many that we still have more than 1000, mostly determined as genuine refugees, stuck on Manus and Nauru after many years, while Saudi woman Rahaf Mohammed Algunun, even recognising the genuineness of her case, can be so quickly admitted.  Or, those who arrive by plane and simply overstay their visas, totalling multiples of those who arrived by boat. Unfortunately, these issues are dominated by politics rather than real solutions.

Since the Howard government saved its electoral skin by exploiting the Tampa, border security has been a significant electoral issue here in Australia.

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.