The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Can the ‘lucky country’ do better?

Posted in Internal Conflicts and Human Security by NTSblog on September 7, 2010

The recent protest by Afghan asylum seekers in compulsory detention in Darwin in the Northern Territory has once again brought to the fore the issue of Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers. Admittedly though, it’s never far from the headlines, particularly at the height of a federal election campaign. Australian politicians have a reliable tradition of using ‘boat people’ as a political target, both pandering to and exacerbating anti-immigrant sentiment. And so it was in the recent election campaign, that both Prime Minister Julia Gillard and opposition leader Tony Abbott offered characteristically hostile policies on the issue of ‘boat people’, based overwhelmingly on the politics of fear rather than fact. Their promises to be tougher on border protection drew criticism from UNHCR, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Some of the myths propagated by politicians and the media in Australia:

Myth #1: Australia is being ‘flooded’ by ‘boat people’.

In comparison to the estimated 50,000 people who overstay their visas in Australia each year, the majority of whom are on traveling visas, the number of asylum seekers in Australia- particularly those arriving by boat- is relatively minor. In 2008-09, of 13,507 people who were granted visas under Australia’s Humanitarian Program, the vast majority (11,010) were granted visas before arrival. Of the remainder who had sought asylum on shore, only 206 had come by boat; 2,291 (over 90%) had arrived by plane. In 2009, around 2,700 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat. This was in comparison to the approximately 180,000 people accepted in as migrants. The UNHCR reports that at end 2009, Australia had a total of 2,350 pending claims for asylum. Although overall, the number of asylum seeker claims in 2009 increased on the previous year by 29%, with UNHCR tables of origin indicating the role of external conflicts, such as that in Afghanistan, figures for Australia not only remained far below those observed in 2000 and 2001, but also far below those recorded by many other industrialized countries.

Myth #2: Australia accepts its fair share of asylum seekers.

In 2009, UNHCR ranked Australia 21st out of 44 industrialized countries in terms of the number of asylum seeker applications per 1,000 inhabitants. When asylum seeker intake was ranked per size of gross domestic product (GDP), Australia sat at 17th place. However, according to the same data, Australia had taken 0.6 asylum applications in terms of GDP per capita between 2005-09; this had fallen to only 0.2 applications in 2009.

Myth #3: Asylum seekers reaching Australia’s shores are ‘queue jumpers’ who have simply elected to disregard due process by making the passage by boat.

Firstly: what queue? Secondly, the location of an individual or urgency of a situation often does not lend to being able to lodge a claim with the UNHCR.

Myth #4: Asylum seekers are usually not fleeing a genuine fear of persecution.

To the contrary, in 2009, on average around 90% of claims made by asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat were proven to be genuine and based on a reasonable belief that if they were to return home they would face persecution, imprisonment or harm. This can actually be compared to the estimated 55% of those arriving by plane who are denied asylum.

Myth #5: ‘Boat people’ seek asylum illegally.

Australia has an obligation under the Refugee Convention to process claims for asylum, whether or not these are ultimately deemed legitimate and granted, or not. Thus, there is also no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker, another assumption that is bandied around in public conversations about asylum seekers.

Australians (and people the world over) need to resist such myths surrounding irregular migration or ‘outsiders’ and demand a more mature political debate. If we choose to become more educated on issues surrounding the plight of asylum seekers and refugees, our politicians will have less fodder to play with in their political point scoring. These myths not only serve to severely degrade the basic right to dignity and survival of fellow human beings in desperate situations, they also have the potential to impact negatively on the cohesiveness of Australia’s multiracial and multicultural society. Surely the lucky country can do better? Doesn’t our common humanity demand it?


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