Recently, changes to our migration act here in Australia meant that any non-Australian citizen who served a prison sentence for more than 12 months would be at risk of deportation at the end of their prison sentence. No doubt this was an attempt to rid our otherwise unsullied paradise of unsavoury foreign types who go around committing crimes and generally bringing down the tone of the place.
There are a few issues associated with this, of course (I know. Who’d have thought it?) The first is that in their attempt to catch all foreign convicted criminals and send them back to their own countries so that won’t burden ours with their evil ways, many long-term Australian residents have been caught in the same net. These are people who have lived here for decades, sometimes since childhood, and who have few or no ties to their country of citizenship. Many have children, partners, friendships and work relationships here. Some of them are sent back to countries where they don’t even speak the language.
There’s also no distinction drawn between those who serve sentences for serious crimes (grievous bodily harm or murder) and those who are in prison for petty crime (stealing or drug charges). Thus people can be sent to prison for relatively minor crimes, and still be deported. Yet if those individuals happened to be Australian citizens, after their sentence were served, they’d be able to return to the community, with the idea that they could start over, and begin to contribute to society in better ways.
And this is where my other concern lies: what is this saying about our criminal justice system? If these people serve out their prison sentences, and we still deport them, because they pose some kind of threat to the high moral standards we hold here in Australia, then haven’t we failed them? Aren’t they supposed to be rehabilitated? That, surely, is one of the aims of incarceration. Punishment is one, but to encourage criminals to attempt redemption is surely another, and perhaps the most important goal of all. It seems odd that someone who was born overseas, but who has lived here most of their life, is more likely to reoffend or lack the potential to be able to turn over a new leaf, than someone who was born here. Our motivations and choices are less about our heritage and more about our cultural influences, growing up. And if these people grew up in Australia, then perhaps we need to start asking some hard questions about what aspects of our own culture are being absorbed by those who come here to live. The responsibility lies with the person committing a crime, no doubt. But nothing happens in a vacuum. We are kidding ourselves, if we think that we can simply stop crime by deporting non-citizens. Where on earth do we think they’ve learnt this–and more to the point, what are we doing to stop it from happening in the first place?
Whether we like it or not, our recent history is one of crime and redemption. White Australia was founded on criminals. Those who settled this country were transported from the UK to serve their prison sentences here (my own forefathers among them), and after having done their time, they could receive pardons and become members of society: farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, politicians. The nation was founded on the idea of ‘a fair go’. Giving people a second chance was pragmatic in those days–there was a country to colonise, after all (never mind that it was already occupied). It seems odd that we would now make such an apparently xenophobic decision to eject those who may have made mistakes and ignore their pleas for clemency. Have we really changed that much?
I know the basis for a law like this is to try to protect us against people who might want to do us harm. That’s the line we’re fed, in any case. But just like the justification of turning back boats so that asylum seekers won’t risk their lives on a treacherous journey, the logic here is flawed. If someone’s a really dangerous criminal, and there’s concern for people’s safety if they’re released… why pass that person onto someone else? This seems like yet another case of Australia not stepping up to pick up its share of global responsibility to keep everyone safe. By isolating ourselves in this way, we don’t make the world better. We just appear racist, scared, and immature.