Australian Government

The shocking hostage crisis in Sydney over the past day could inflame an already contentious debate over Australia's immigration policy.

The suspected hostage-taker, 50-year-old Man Haron Monis, arrived in Australia as a refugee from Iran in 1996. Born Manteghi Boroujerdi, the gunman claimed to have faced persecution for preaching a liberal brand of Islam in his native land, and sought safe haven abroad. Monis was out on bail after a string of violent offenses, including a charge that he acted as an accessory to the murder of his ex-wife.

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Refugee and asylum policy is a contentious issue in Australia. A mass influx of "boat people" — refugees heading to the Australia from Sri Lanka, Iraq, and Iran — has hardened public sentiment against unauthorized immigrants in recent years; a poll earlier this year found that 60 percent of Australians want the government to treat asylum-seekers more harshly.

The weekend hostage-taking is unlikely to soften public opinion on the matter. "It will be interesting to see if the government decides to use this incident to decide to crack down on immigration," said Kathleen Newland, a director at the Washington, D.C.- based Migration Policy Institute.

Public concern over immigration was heightened during the 2013 federal election, as tens of thousands of people arrived by sea. "There was a reaction almost of panic when they were getting so many boats,"said Newland. "I think they felt there was no upper limit to this."

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In 2013, Tony Abbott was elected prime minister on the ticket of the center-right Liberal Party, largely on the promise that he would crack down on illegal immigration. The party implemented draconian return policies and a tough-talking propaganda campaign with the tagline, "No way: you will not make Australia home."

The strategy worked. Only one boat carrying 157 refugees arrived on Australia's shores this year, down from 300 boats carrying 20,587 people last year.

That success has further emboldened the government. Earlier this month, the ruling party granted the immigration minister unprecedented power to deal with illegal immigration, including the ability to skirt the rules laid out in the United Nations refugee convention.

The motives for the hostage-taking siege, which ended early Tuesday morning local time, are not yet clear. But some clues have emerged. During the early hours of the incident, Abbott said the gunman appeared to be "politically motivated" and a black flag held by captives referenced Allah and Mohammad in Arabic.

Some Muslims in Australia told reporters they were avoiding public transit, fearing retribution from angry residents. A network for supporters quickly emerged on social media, however, using the hashtag #illridewithyou to show solidarity.

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Australia, despite current xenophobic sentiments, is a nation of immigrants. Of the 23.6 million people who live in Australia, 27 percent are foreign born, making it proportionally one of the biggest immigrant nations in the developed world.

Newland said the Australian public mostly resents "unplanned arrivals," but not immigration as a whole. Still, she doesn't discount the possibility that the government will use fears over last weekend's incident to justify a further tightening of restrictions. "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a reaction in the coalition to somehow toughen up," she said.

In an op-ed Monday, Nick Adams, an Australian commentator for FOX News and a self-described "politically incorrect conservative culture warrior," voiced the sort of approach to immigration representative of the views on the far-right.

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"Some Australians recognize that this likely terrorist attack is a result of the poor immigration decisions of Australian governments, both conservative and liberal, over the last four decades," he wrote. "Islamist views are incompatible with the liberty enjoyed by Australians and Americans."

But so far, Australia's top politician has remained even-keeled. At a press conference on Monday, Abbott said Australia should not relinquish its tradition of openness.

“The whole point of politically motivated violence is to scare people out of being themselves,” he said. “Australia is a peaceful, open, and generous society. Nothing should ever change that."

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UPDATE, 2:10 p.m.: This post was updated with information about the criminal history of Man Haron Monis.

Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.