The recent integration of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service into the Department of Immigration – and the creation within it of the Australian Border Force (ABF) – is the latest in a series of changes to the department that reflect the increasing securitisation of immigration policies, processes and language.
In the 70 years since its creation, the department has undergone multiple changes in both name and purview to reflect social and political demands. Notably this saw the inclusion of Ethnic Affairs from 1976, and of Multicultural Affairs from 1996. There have also been brief dalliances with Labour (1974-75), Local Government (1987-93) and Indigenous Affairs (2001-06).
But, in many respects, the 2013 shift to Immigration and Border Protection – and the creation of the ABF – is the most profound change in the department’s history. It signifies a reorientation from building Australia to protecting it.
What the changes mean
One potentially productive aspect of this shift is the divorcing of settlement and multicultural affairs from immigration and their relocation to the Department of Social Services.
While such significant changes always risk losing in transition some of the knowledge and expertise embedded in a department, this shift aligns settlement and multiculturalism with other areas of policy and service provision that address issues of inclusion, equity and well-being.
It is also symbolically important in its separation, for the first time, of multiculturalism from immigration. It locates multiculturalism firmly within the nation, reflecting its intergenerational and community-wide relevance.
However, the removal of settlement and multiculturalism responsibilities clears the way for the department to focus its attention more sharply on the border: both Australia’s physical border and the threshold for formal membership within it.
At the same time, departmental and ministerial power is expanding in both of these domains, along with decreasing opportunities for external scrutiny and oversight.
And while the department no longer has responsibility for settlement and multiculturalism, its actions – and particularly its words – continue to cast a long shadow over those from migrant backgrounds.
In positioning migrants and their descendants – be they asylum seekers arriving by boat or second-generation Muslim Australians – as a security risk, the department contributes to negatively shaping public opinion and community reception of people from particular migrant backgrounds.
Implications for citizenship
With the exception of unauthorised maritime arrivals, whose – lack of – avenues for entry and inclusion have been made abundantly clear, the implications of recent and proposed policy changes for new immigrants and potential citizens are still uncertain.
However, a discussion paper on Australian citizenship suggests that in the context of an increased focus on the risk of terrorism, greater demonstrations of allegiance will likely be required.
Among the possibilities for “strengthening the citizenship framework” proposed in the discussion paper are limits to the number of times the citizenship test can be taken before a candidate is rejected, and an increased emphasis on loyalty to Australia in both the test and the Pledge of Commitment.
Such proposals are, for the most part, extensions of amendments to the Australian Citizenship Act introduced in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet they also reflect a wider ideological shift in immigrant-receiving countries away from viewing citizenship as a foundation for migrant integration and toward regarding it as a reward granted to those who can demonstrate, via such mechanisms as duration of residence and linguistic and cultural competency, that they are already successfully integrating.
In addition, the focus of proposed terrorism-related citizenship reforms on dual citizens highlights the different rights and value attached to different modes of acquiring and holding Australian citizenship.
While it has long been the case that dual nationals could have their citizenship revoked in a few, limited circumstances, the proposals to strip those involved in terrorism of their citizenship draw public attention to a rarely acknowledged hierarchy. They also reflect an implicit assumption that conferred citizens and those with multiple allegiances are a possible threat to the nation.
There are suggestions that these different modes of citizenship could have a practical effect on the consequences meted out for forms of political action and expression that fall well short of direct engagement in terrorism. The potential for proposed legislation to be applied or extended in ways that reinforce an inequitable citizenship structure with different levels of opportunity and constraints is troubling.
Implications for settlement
Even without this, changes to policy and discourse have potential implications for the settlement and integration of migrants. A 2011 study commissioned by the department into the settlement outcomes of newly arrived refugees found that being treated well by the local community was one of four key indicators of successful settlement.
A number of studies have also demonstrated the detrimental effects of discrimination and exclusion on well-being. The perpetuation of a public discourse that frames particular migrants and their descendants as a security risk – and thereby cultivates suspicion and exclusion – in turn poses a risk to members of targeted communities.
The securitisation of the department, and of immigration and citizenship more generally, is reshaping the relationship between Australia and its recent and future migrants. While the allegiances of some migrants and their descendants may present a challenge for Australia, it is also worth considering what is at stake if Australia decreases its allegiance to migrants.
This is part of a series looking at how the Department of Immigration has changed as it marks 70 years since its creation. Read the others here.