Stuck between two worlds, life of an Illegal Immigrant in Australia

This feature article is based on an interview with a Chinese illegal immigrant who has been living in Australia for the past 17 years. 

When Jack (assumed name) left his village home on the east coast of China, he had little idea that he would never see his wife and three young daughters again for the next seventeen years. But at that moment, it seemed going overseas with whatever cost would ensure the family’s financial security for years to come, like many other villagers did before him.

Jack came from Fujian (or Hokkien) Province of China. He has been living in Australia since 1996. Not speaking a word of English, he nevertheless made a living by working hard labour in construction. Although he managed to send back enough money to support his wife and raise three daughters, he has never seen them for the past seventeen years. Officially he is not accounted for as an Australian citizen or resident. Jack is an illegal immigrant, or “black citizen” in Chinese.

The illegal immigrants are unlawful non-citizens who don’t have a legal visa or their visa have expired or voided. According to the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) website, “As at 30 June 2012, it was estimated that 60 900 people were unlawfully in Australia.” Another document released in Nov. 2011 showed, plane arrivals from China (8070), United States (5080), Malaysia (4200) and Britain (3610) are the top four countries where illegal immigrants came from. But Jack believes the actual figures are much bigger than these.

Jack came from a small fishing village on the China’s southeast coast. Sandwiched between high mountains and sea, traditionally the villagers made a living solely on fishing for hundreds of years. But slowly as the fishing resources depleted, people started to go overseas to make money. Some did successfully and came back with incredible fortune and stories. Going overseas has become a deep-rooted tradition in these economically disadvantageous areas.

But for Jack and his wife, there was something else. Like all other young couples living in the countryside, they always wanted a son. In Chinese countryside in the 90s, where little social welfare system ever existed, the traditional belief was that a son would take care of his parents when they get old. Unfortunately Jack and his wife had three daughters in a row.

Having violated the China’s One-child Policy, they were faced with compulsory birth-restriction operations. Jack remembered instances when people from the local authority broke into their house and tried to take them by force. Eventually his wife succumbed to the operation, but was left with chronicle back pain from the operation and was unable to work anymore. Jack then found harder to support his family.

Driven to despair, Jack decided to go to Australia to make a living. In the early spring of 1986, he arrived in Australia using a fake South Korean passport under a temporary working visa. In the first three years after he arrived, he worked hard labours in Melbourne, switched jobs between Chinese restaurants, supermarket delivery and a Toufu factory. During those days, he worked 14 hours every day and earned about $500 a week. Apart from paying for meals and accommodation, he sent back around half of his income to his wife and daughters. In the 90s, the average annual household income in his town was just around 2000RMB, or $300. The money he sent back home would have provided his family a comfortable life.

After three years in Melbourne, he came to Sydney to work in the construction. From six in the morning till six in the afternoon, six to seven days a week, and in constant contact with hazardous materials, building a house is hard labour but pays well. Jack started with $360 per week, but eventually out-performed other co-workers and earned as much as $300 a day after obtaining a license in gyprock plastering.

According to the DIAC statistics, the top three industries illegal workers are employed in are agriculture, forestry, and fishing; construction; accommodation and food services. Jack also confirmed most illegal immigrants he knows of are working in construction, cleaning and restaurants.

But contradictory to the DIAC’s finding, that illegal workers take away job opportunities and evaded tax, Jack said illegal immigrants are working those jobs that most Aussies don’t want, and as high as 80% of illegal immigrants he knows of have Tax File Number and have paid tax for many years, because without a TFN, they cannot find a well-paying job in the long term. Jack said he himself has paid no less than $100,000 in the past seventeen years working in Australia.

“Australia has a high living standard. This leads to a lot of dirty and hard labour jobs difficult to be filled, if without these cheap labourers… A lot of illegal immigrants work in gyprock, tiling and painting, all of which have health risks because of close contact with hazardous chemicals,” he said, “Illegal immigrants have worked on 70% of houses in Australia. The property prices would have been unaffordable without them.” Jack believed Australian Government has purposefully kept quiet on this fact.

Jack admitted he is addicted to gambling. He said 80% of the illegal immigrants suffered addiction to passive gambling, and the main cause was loneliness. “Many have been separated from their family for years. After work they feel empty, so they just go to clubs and gamble away their time! Many still owe hundreds of thousands of dollars after many years of hard labour in Australia.” According to DIAC, more than half of those illegal immigrants have been here for five or more years and around 20,000 for a decade or more.

The illegal immigrants must cope with the frustration of struggling alone in a foreign land. Like many others, Jack was converted Christianity soon after he arrived in Australia. He said, “Church doesn’t really help us, but at least we can get some encouragements.”

Up till now, there have not been many legal pathways for these people to acquire legal residency, except for refugee claims or marriage with an Australian. Jack applied for asylum in 1997 and then in 2008, both unsuccessful. But the subsequent repatriation process proved to be as treacherous as him fighting to stay in Australia.

Jack came to Australia with a fake South Korean identity. And when he left his village, his name was permanently deleted from the Chinese official household registration. The Chinese Embassy at first refused to issue him a Chinese passport. After he was rejected of his second asylum application in 2009, DIAC stepped in to negotiate with the Chinese Embassy, but it was only until recently that Jack finally received his Chinese passport.

According to DIAC, employing illegal workers is an offence under the Criminal Code Act 1995, which attracts penalties of up to $102,000 and/or two years’ imprisonment per illegal worker. On 1st, June, 2013, new laws introduced civil penalties for businesses that allow illegal work, which will give DIAC extra leverage against the employers who knowingly or unknowingly hired illegal immigrants to work.

Jack is now in his fifties and all his three daughters have grown up and are doing well in China. His eldest daughter married well and has made him a proud grandfather. And his second daughter is doing a PhD. in Beijing University, one of the most prestigious universities in China. Jack is hesitated about going back to China, because he is not sure if he can adjust back to life in China after seventeen years in Australia. Jack is concerned about his future.

By the time this article finishes, Jack has been in the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre. A decision is pending on his appeal which might as well be his final effort to stay in Australia. Should the appeal be rejected, Jack will be deported back to China soon.


  1. It is amazing how a person would rather like to suffer loneliness, detachment from culture and society, sacrificing 17 years of hope just for the well being of one’s family. It is a sad story and yet very much realistic in an immigration society. Just wondering how Jack proceeds with his new life in the future, in Australia or in China?

  2. Great article Mingyue in showing the human side of this issue. I sympathise with him, but it looks to me like it might actually be good for Jack to go back to his family for a while.

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