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Permeable borders

By Peter Curson - posted Monday, 18 May 2009

In a recent piece in The Australian Spectator magazine Tom Switzer has argued that “A nation that loses control of its borders is no nation at all” and that we must “defend the sovereignty of the nation’s borders”.

Sensible comments in these days of floods of refugees and boat people, but largely predicated on a very traditional definition of security and one that excludes consideration of non-traditional aspects of the security equation.

Take health and infectious disease for example. Arguably the health of Australia’s population and its protection from outside disease threats is a critical issue vital to the stability of the nation in so far as such disease threatens not only individual health and wellbeing but also the stability and viability of the nation. A healthy, fearless population free from outside disease threats represents the vital human capital necessary for innovation, productivity and growth.


In the case of infectious disease, national borders have become irrelevant. In a globalised interconnected world such disease recognises no geo-political constraints and moves freely across international borders at the speed of migratory birds and/or the fastest commercial aircraft. In such a world where almost 1.5 billion people cross international borders by air every year, bacteria and viruses hitch a ride. Faced with such a situation how does Australia protect its borders?

Historically, Australia relied on the tyranny of distance to protect it from the ravages of Old World epidemics. The long sea voyage out to Australia would often see infections burn themselves out before arrival or if they didn’t people could be accommodated in various Quarantine Stations or kept in the ship anchored off shore. The advent of air travel and the removal of formal quarantine stations have changed all that. Now we rely on airport surveillance to report symptomatic arrivals. Given that many arrivals may well be incubating an interesting and exotic infection but showing no symptoms, it is a less than perfect system.

Twenty-first century Australia seems to be confronted by a number of different forms of immigration. One is the legitimate movement of tourists, business people, students and permanent settlers. Another is the illegal movement of refugees - the “boat people” instigated by people smugglers - plus an array of over-stayers and their like. Still another is the immigration of “microbial tourists” who literally fly in with their animal host, travel as part of the internal or external baggage of human arrivals, or come to Australia in consignments of foodstuffs, products and goods or in the ballast water of visiting ships.

Faced with such circumstances traditional border security and surveillance works for one group but not the others. So the question remains - is a nation that cannot secure its borders against the immigration of “illegals” be they human or microbial, not a nation at all? It is an interesting question and one which goes to the very heart of security in the 21st century.

According to Switzer people-smuggling treats our borders and migration program with contempt and “that an unregulated inflow of boat people could … put an intense burden on the public purse and the nation’s resources”. But what about the effect of epidemics and pandemics on the nation’s purse and resources? SARS cost the world about $US50 billion, Bird Flu much more. A pandemic of human flu cost might cost the world anything from $US800 billion to trillions of dollars. Australia’s loss would be in the hundreds of millions.

But it is the human cost of infectious disease which places the debate about border security into some perspective. Epidemics and pandemics are social tragedies of the highest order, affecting all levels of society and traumatising millions of people. While one cannot help be moved by the plight of boat people and concerned for what it means for maintaining the security of Australia’s coastline, there are other issues here which are perhaps of greater importance.


It is true as Switzer claims that most democratically elected governments decide on who comes into the country and the circumstances in which they enter. But this only applies to human migrants and many might argue that they constitute much less of a threat than do microbial invaders.

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About the Author

Peter Curson is Emeritus Professor of Population and Health in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Macquarie University.

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