9 Jan 2015

Would Picasso be allowed to enter Australia today?

Recently I had this article published in the wonderful Daily Review. I hope you enjoy it.

Image courtesy of Ceridwen
Imagine if you could travel in time like the protagonist of Midnight in Paris and went to a party accompanied by Picasso. You would probably feel pretty proud of rubbing shoulders with one of the most respected artists of the 20th century, one of the creators of Cubism, whose works of art are exhibited in the most renowned museums of the world.

As an immigrant to Australia I felt that the process of applying for a resident visa was similar to turning up at someone’s door and hoping they’ll let you join their party. Migration policies and procedures, designed with the most practical purposes in mind, are a hard measure of how worthwhile you are for the country you’re hoping will be your new home. Being rejected in the process can feel a lot like being refused entry to a great celebration for which you are not good enough.

It is hard to imagine that Picasso had to go through anything similar. Yet, in the recent reopening of Musée Picassoin Paris, French President Francois Hollande reminded audiences that Picasso was refused French citizenship when he requested it in 1940.

By then Picasso had already been living in France for almost 40 years. He was romantically involved with Paris-based photographer Dora Maar. He was already father to two children from previous relationships and had a prolific and respected career, but none of this was enough to deserve French citizenship.

His application was turned down on the grounds that he was an anarchist with communist tendencies.
Would Picasso’s chances of being granted a resident visa in today’s Australia be any better?
One of his options would be to ask for refugee status. The Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951 defines refugee as: ”Any person who owing to a well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

This option didn’t exist at the time of Picasso’s application for French citizenship in 1940. It was after the mass migrations during the Second World War, particularly from Europe, that it was decided that there needed to be a common understanding of which people needed protection and how they should be protected.

In 1940, France had just signed the armistice that allowed Nazi Germany to administer the occupied zone in areas of Northern and Western France. The Vichy Government ruled. One can imagine there may have been a sentimental reason why Picasso applied for French citizenship but there were also practical elements at play. As a Spaniard who had spoken against Franco’s fascist regime in Spain, there is indication that Picasso feared the French Vichy Government would send him to one of the many concentration camps or hand him over to the German Nazi officials.
His fears were well founded.

John Andres Garcia was born in a Spanish refugee camp in the South of France and is a founding member of the Spanish Democratic Centre in Sydney. In his talk for Manning Clark House, he explained that at the commencement of World War Two there were more than 200,000 Spanish exiles in France. Records indicate that 14,000 Republicans were captured by the Germans.
In early 1941, 60 % of the prisoners in Mauthausen Concentration Camp were Spaniards.

Although Picasso would have the option to apply for refugee status in Australia, this is an arduous process which has just become a bit more so with the passing of a law that reintroduces Temporary Protection visas. The Australian Government can return an individual on a TPV after three years if it believes conditions in the country from which the person came have improved.

In October this year, senior officials of governments and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) met to discuss the need for nations to share responsibility for assisting more than 50 million people displaced by persecution and conflict, the highest number of displaced people and refugees since World War Two.

According to the Refugee Council of Australia, at the meeting, non-government organisations (NGOs) working with displaced people around the world singled out Australia for strong criticism. In a joint statement on refugee protection coordinated by the International Council of Voluntary Agencies, the world’s NGOs told the 2014 UNHCR Executive Committee meeting in Geneva that they remain “deeply disturbed by the continuing deterioration of protection standards for asylum seekers in Australia”.

Picasso may have struggled to get refugee status. However, he was an artist of significant merit and a wealthy man, which means he would have other options to enter Australia.
He was 59 when he applied for French citizenship, which would have made him too old to apply for a point-based Skilled Migration Visa. He couldn’t apply for a temporary Employer Sponsored Visa either because, even if he found a sponsor, neither painters nor artists are included on the prevailing Consolidated Skilled Occupations List.

He would certainly have stood a good chance of being granted a Distinguished Talent Visa. Distinguished Talent Visas are granted to a small group of people who are internationally recognised as outstanding in their field. Picasso certainly fit that description.

He could also have applied for an Investor Retirement Visa, which euphemistically applies to older people with a significant amount of money in their bank account. This would have allowed him to work up to 40 hours per fortnight. It might have affected the number of commissioned works he was able to accept, but it wouldn’t have stopped him from painting as much as he wanted for his own enjoyment. The downside is that this visa is valid for four years only. After this, he would need another one.

It seems that Picasso would be able to get either the Distinguished Talent Visa or the Investor Retirement Visa but there is one aspect that could overshadow his solid finances and his artistic merit: his politics.

Could his communist and anarchist sympathies be enough for the Australian Government to reject his application following Public Interest Criteria? These criteria allow the Government to reject visa applications from individuals who would be harmful or dangerous to Australian society.
Because of his political views, Picasso was held for several hours at his arrival in Britain for the 1950s peace congress and monitored during his stay.

It is hard to believe that Picasso’s political affiliations would be considered so dangerous by today’s Australian Government that it would prevent him from obtaining a visa.

However, reports indicate that, in August this year, three Sri Lankan union delegates were denied entry to Australia for what, according to Australian unions, were political reasons. Union officials believe the government wanted to prevent discussions on how to get Ansell Lanka, a subsidiary of the Australian company Ansell, to reinstate the 300 workers it sacked last year.

The case of these union delegates is very different to that of Picasso. It is likely that, given his wealth and renown, government officials would put aside any mistrust of his politics and grant him an Australian resident visa.
Sadly, other applicants who could contribute positively to Australian society, but who aren
’t wealthy and don’t have an extraordinary talent, have their visa applications rejected.

Immigration policies are cruelly practical. By reducing individuals to a series of measurable qualities written on a list, they fail to recognise the full value of people.